Of G-Men and Farmers

There’s an interesting story concerning this Midiman GMan General MIDI sound module. It involves Midiman (better known as M-Audio), the Farmers Insurance Exchange, and also Dream/Atmel, Crystal Semiconductor, and Roland. (Apologies for the beat-up specimen.)

Midiman MIDI GMan sound module

The story of course concerns the famous Sound Canvas sound banks that Dream/Crystal offered for use with the SAM 9203, 9233, and related synthesizers. It was well known in the 1990s that the Dream/Crystal instrument banks sounded just like Roland’s, and that Roland eventually sued them. But the details were not well known, and they’re interesting.

The important points are summarized in Midiman v. Farmers Insurance Exchange, a sort of knock-on lawsuit between Midiman and Farmers Insurance Exchange, Midiman’s insurance company.

The Roland lawsuit was filed in September 1996 against Midiman, Crystal Semiconductor, and Dream/Atmel. Midiman was the company selling sound modules (specifically the GMan), and Crystal supplied the chips designed by Dream. See below:

The internals of MIDI GMan

Roland’s main complaint was copyright infringement. Dream apparently used a sampler to record the Sound Canvas instruments and used that as a basis for their sound banks. The Roland v. Midiman case was settled out of court before it was brought to trial, which means there is not much publicly available information about the case.

The Midiman v. Farmers case was a side effect of the out-of-court settlement. Midiman had a commercial insurance policy which would cover damages, but Farmers refused to pay because Midiman did not accept legal counsel provided by Farmers and settled against the advice of Farmers Insurance Exchange. Midiman settled because it didn’t want to incur the legal expenses, but Farmers refused to pay in part because there was no trial.

The Midiman v. Farmers court documents among other things mention the following: “It is undisputed that Atmel-Dream used a sampler to copy the copyrighted Sound Recordings contained in the Sound Canvas, encoded the Sound Recordings onto computer chips, which they licensed or distributed throughout the world[;] ․ that Atmel-Dream entered into a license agreement with Crystal wherein Crystal used the copied Sound Recordings to manufacture approximately one million chips;  [and that] Crystal also sold chips to [appellants] Ryan and Odell, and their company [Midiman] installed the infringing chips into its own sound module known as the ‘MIDI GMan.’ ”

There are some rather interesting tidbits: “Specifically, Midiman contended that the facts would have shown that it had displayed a prototype of the MIDI GMan at a trade show in January 1996. A Roland representative saw and heard the product. Rather than demand that Midiman cease production, Roland instead instructed Midiman on how to correctly display its trademark on the front of the unit.”

That sounds like Midiman displayed the GS logo in good faith, because the GMan was highly Sound Canvas compatible, both in terms of the sound and in terms of functionality (SysEx etc.).

Atmel separately settled with Roland in October 1997 and published a press release. Here is the key part:

“Atmel Corporation announced today the settlement of a copyright and trademark lawsuit filed by Roland Corporation U.S. against Atmel Corporation, Atmel’s French subsidiary, DREAM, S.A., and Crystal Semiconductor. Crystal was a customer of DREAM and Atmel with respect to the products at issue.
Under the settlement, Atmel, DREAM and Crystal have acknowledged the validity of Roland’s copyright in its digital sound recordings. The settlement permits DREAM to sell into the worldwide karaoke, sound card, PC and multimedia markets its existing line of Roland’s GS format compliant products. DREAM has also received an option to license genuine Roland sound recordings for use in new products. It is anticipated that DREAM will exercise that option for its next generation of products, which are required under the terms of the settlement to be compliant with Roland’s GS format for MIDI applications. DREAM’s line of products include digital signal processors (DSPs), which are specifically adapted for sound synthesis and are sold in conjunction with read-only memory chips, capturing the Roland sound recordings.
The financial terms of the settlement are confidential and were not disclosed.”

Evidence of the settlement can be found in the Dream SAM9713 synth chip datasheet from January 1998, for example:

“GMS960800B [sound bank available] with express permission of Roland Corporation, special licensing conditions apply. WARNING: GMS960800B may not be installed in any musical instrument except for electronic keyboards and synthesizers that have a sale price of less than $75 FOB. Using this product in the manufacture of musical instruments or selling this product for use in a musical instrument (other than the exceptions noted above) is a violation of the intellectual property rights of Roland Corporation and will result in liability for infringement.”

Essentially Roland allowed Dream to continue selling the existing sound banks, but only into the markets Roland wasn’t interested in—PC sound cards, karaoke machines, but not musical instruments. Dream quickly developed its own CleanWave sound sets which were free of any alleged Roland intellectual property.

The Roland complaint raises an interesting question: If sampling Roland’s instruments violates Roland’s copyright, where did Roland’s natural instrument sounds come from? Did Roland license the sounds from piano, violin, trumpet, oboe, etc. manufacturers? The mind boggles.

This entry was posted in Crystal Semi, Dream, Legal, MIDI, Roland, Sound. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Of G-Men and Farmers

  1. zeurkous says:

    It didn’t violate Roland’s copyright, that’s why they settled. Or that’s
    me interpretation.

    In .nl there’s a construct, believes, which is called ‘databankenrecht’,
    database rights, which AFAIK makes it a violation to reproduce, w/o
    authorization, a collection as a whole, even if it wouldn’t otherwise
    fall under copyright. Perhaps something like that exists in US law,
    though medoubts it.

  2. Michal Necasek says:

    Dream accepted Roland’s copyright claims, but it was not tested in court. So no one can say if Dream actually infringed on Roland’s copyrights or not.

    The known terms of the settlement make me think that it went more like this: Dream didn’t want to go to court and risk a lengthy/expensive legal case with possible injunctions. But at the same time Roland and Dream both knew that the copyright case was pretty shaky. The settlement allowed Roland to maintain their copyright claim and Dream to continue doing most of what they’d been doing.

    For example, Dream deleted references to Roland in their datasheets, but continued supporting GS SysEx messages.

  3. zeurkous says:

    Accepted! *bangs gavel*

  4. Piskijker says:

    [[Zeurkous, Piskijker hier: You know full well that the use of pronouns in both English and your native Dutch is identical. Please stop that ‘Cruijffiaanse stijlfiguur’. Yes, you are unique … and it’s annoying to read.]]

  5. zeurkous says:

    Me’ll speak the way melikes. So Frankish to have a stern talk with
    people who are being unconventional… ehm, sorry, ‘annoying’.

  6. zeurkous says:

    As for the rest of your remarks: you’re Not Even Wrong(tm). Me’ll leave
    you to find out why, mehas wasted enough time on you.

    @Necasek: sorry if the comment about Franks rubbed you the wrong way,
    since even if you live where methinks you live, meconsiders
    you to very much defy that trope.

  7. Michal Necasek says:

    I’m not Frankish or German, so it’s hard to take that personally. But I’d prefer not to have such discussions here and don’t mind deleting comments I don’t like.

  8. zeurkous says:

    Medoesn’t like comments being deleted, but mecan understand if you’d
    want to rm this conversation, given just how nasty it is.

    Mejust had a bit of an ‘allergic’ response, trouble in the past w/
    fellows like our pisslooker (that’s what his nick means — mine means
    ‘whining bastard’ ), though AFAIK not w/ him personally.

    Let’s leave it at that. Sorry for me share of the trouble.

  9. Piskijker says:

    @Zeurkous: You are right of course. It is entirely your prerogative to express yourself any way you like. (Just like it is mine.)

    @Michal: My apologies. Feel absolutely free to delete my 2 messages.
    I’ve ‘known’ you since the SciTech Display Doctor and OpenWatcom days. I know about DOS internals and undocumented parts. I worked at IBM during the development (and introduction) of OS/2. (Kept it as my primary environment until eCS 1.2.) And yet, the first time I ‘open my mouth’ it is about somebody’s language. That shouldn’t have happened. So, remove them and I will continue to quietly lurk and keep my mouth shut.

  10. Michal Necasek says:

    Apologies accepted. Technical/history discussions are welcome 🙂

  11. Richard Wells says:

    I vaguely remember newspaper articles for about 25 years ago of second tier orchestras funding themselves by creating royalty free sound samplers. I can’t find anything that suggests Roland used that. Roland did have a number of inferior sounding synthesizers over the years. Scooping up the final sounds Roland produced takes advantage of the decades of R&D Roland conducted. Even if legal, Midiman was lazy and cheap.

  12. zeurkous says:

    Then again, sometimes, ‘Sounds exactly like X’ is a selling point.

  13. MiaM says:

    While on the subject, did Soundtracker (the first tracker software, commercial at the time) aquire any rights to use the included samples? Afaik it were quite good sounding samples of varios contemporary synthesizers. (Google ST-01 for those sounds)

  14. I’ve always wondered about that, as far as I’m aware you are allowed to make short samples of songs in mixes etc, so if you sampled instruments briefly how could that hold up? They didn’t copy the ROM, just sampled it playing individual notes.

    But I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV either.

  15. Michal Necasek says:

    How could that hold up? That’s the question 🙂 Neither Roland nor Dream wanted to have it decided in court. That means Roland knew there was a risk they’d lose, and Dream either thought there was a risk they would lose or didn’t want to litigate an expensive case (Roland presumably was big enough that they wouldn’t mind).

  16. Richard Wells says:

    One can copy a small snippet with no legal problem. Copy a few measures here, a few measures there, a few measures some other place enough times and then it becomes Robin Thicke’s $7.3 million payment. Copying all of Roland’s sounds and advertising them as being Roland’s sounds really seems to be pushing the limits of the law.

  17. Michal Necasek says:

    The thing is, Dream wasn’t copying music (or a performance in a more general sense), they were copying sound. If you build a violin, and I build another one made to sound exactly like yours, did I violate your copyright?

  18. zeurkous says:

    Methinks it’s more akin to copying and distributing textbooks on how to
    play. Or even sheet music.

  19. calvin says:

    Not quite IMHO. The sheet music is basically the music you play – it could be played on a variety of instruments. The synth itself is the instrument, be it plucked strings or sampled waveforms.

  20. And this wasn’t rom copying but rather instrument performance. No Melody, no sheet music.. it’s no wonder Roland didn’t want this litigated, and instead they gave them a license to go into markets they didn’t care about.

    It’d be interesting to hear the copy synth vs the real one

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