Creative Technology, the Singapore maker of the Zen digital music player, on Tuesday raised the spectre of a legal battle with Apple Computer, charging that the US company’s popular iPod and iPod mini music players use Creative’s recently patented technology.

Craig McHugh, president of Creative’s US division, said seeking royalties or suing rivals such as Apple were two options open to the company.

“We don’t right now rule out any of the alternatives open to us,” said Mr McHugh. “It’s too early to say we are predisposed to any one of our options, but we will vigorously defend our intellectual property.”

Creative also announced on Tuesday that it was earlier this month awarded a patent for a user interface that enables users of portable media players to efficiently and intuitively navigate among and select tracks on the players.

The company said its patented technology enables users to navigate through a hierarchy of three or more successive screens on the display of their player. For example, the sequence of screens could display artists, then albums, and then tracks.

Analysts said that while it appeared likely Creative would seek royalties from Apple, patent cases such as these could drag out for many years and were highly unpredictable.

“Creative will have a hard time getting its bite out of Apple,” said Phil Leigh, analyst at Inside Digital Media.

It marked Apple’s second iPod patent setback in less than two months. An Apple patent application was recently rejected in the US after software rival Microsoft beat Apple in filing documents on a similar interface idea.

Creative was one of the first companies to market digital music players in 2000, but the Singaporecompany’s devices have been overshadowed by Apple’s popular iPod product line. Apple has shipped almost 22m units since introducing the iPod in 2001, dominating the US market.

Creative said there were other competing digital music players it believed were using its patented technology, but the company declined to name them because it had not completed testing.

Mr McHugh would not say whether Creative had approached Apple to discuss the matter. Apple representatives were not immediately available for comment.

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