Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) fans who are surprised to learn that Steve Jobs didn't invent the color white may also be shocked to hear that his firm was late to the iPod game, too. Yes, long before the iPod outgrew the soul-patch and arthouse-specs crowd to become the must-have accessory for everyone, a little outfit called Creative (NASDAQ:CREAF) was shipping portable players.

While Apple outhustled the Singapore-based gadget maker with its phenomenal marketing and media hype, it didn't manage to get the job done when it came to patenting the simple user interface (UI) that many claim is the major reason for the iPod's success. (I think the latter theory too greatly discounts the touch wheel and the American demand for fashionable conformity, but that's another topic.)

So who did get a patent on the simple, hierarchical, self-sorting mobile media UI? The folks at Creative. This factoid itself isn't new; it was first announced late last summer. But the possible fallout from this event is making headlines again. Creative's recent launch event for its newest portable music and video player, the Zen Vision M, may hint at an upcoming struggle. The Zen Vision M is a good-looking gizmo which features a screen with more colors than Apple's video iPod, supports Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Media formats, and claims vastly superior battery life for video.

CEO Sim Wong Hoo told the BBC that his company was going to be more aggressive in ensuring that others respect its UI patent, saying "We will pursue all manufacturers that use the same navigation system."

I'm not a patent attorney or a potential patent lawsuit jurist, but in reading the patent in question, it certainly sounds like the iPod interface. Keep in mind that this isn't the only patent claim for a UI feature integral to the iPod. Microsoft's got one on the playlist. So far, Microsoft hasn't rattled any sabers, but I see no reason for Mr. Softy to play softball on the IP in question.

Could Apple stand a patent fight with a fed-up Asian competitor and its old nemesis over some of the key features of the device that has pretty much saved the entire company? It certainly has the cash to fight a battle for years, but would it be worth the price? And what would the ultimate cost be? Apple shareholders, who are bidding up the stubs to prices that don't seem to assume anything will possibly ever go wrong, would do well to at least ponder those possibilities.

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Seth Jayson is pretty sure the color white isn't patentable, so Apple fans should be safe there. At the time of publication, he had shares of Microsoft, but no position in any other company mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.