Such is the relationship between the music industry and Apple, for it was only two and a half years ago when label players were praising Steve Jobs and iTunes for saving the recording industry from the rampant theft of its wares through peer-to-peer piracy. Back in 2003, many record company execs pointed to iTunes as the model of legal downloading. What’s more, they praised iTunes’ 99 cents per song, no commitment / no subscription download pricing as the business model of the future.

But a lot has changed since those days in early 2003 when Apple shook up the fledgling online music biz with the iTunes / iPod one-two punch. Subscription models, where you can download all you want for a basic monthly price, but you must keep subscribing in order to keep listening, have been hailed as the future of online music. And iTunes? Even though the online music store keeps selling downloads, it appears that the music industry isn’t quite as thrilled with the service as it once was.

Recently, a news story in The New York Times titled “Apple, Digital Music’s Angel, Earns Record Industry’s Scorn” reported that many music execs have reservations about the pricing, with some label leaders wanting higher prices for newer releases and lower prices for older tunes.

According to The Times, when Apple recently launched iTunes in Japan, music from two major labels,Sony BMG and Warner Music Group, was conspicuously absent from the online store’s inventory, supposedly because of disagreements over pricing.

There has also been some animosity expressed by label executives over Apple’s game plan of using iTunes to promote the company’s iPod music player. For Apple, iTunes sales account for a very small revenue stream for the company, while iPods, currently numbering more than 20 million in sales, has been a high point for the folks in Cupertino.

So far, iTunes accounts for about 75 percent of total music download sales while the company’s iPod makes up about 80 percent of the personal music player market. Of those 99 cents-per-song sales, about 70 cents goes to the labels.

But is 99 cents per song a fair price? Online music services have yet to come up with a pricing structure similar to the brick & mortar world, where older songs are often priced lower than new releases.

For example, iTunes sells songs from Kanye West’s latest album, “Late Registration,” for 99 cents per track, the same price it charges for tracks from ‘70s albums like Deep Purple’s “Machine Head” or The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers.” In iTunes land, every song goes for 99 cents regardless of age and/or popularity.

At least one artist has expressed reservations about the current 99 cent pricing found on iTunes as well as other online music stores.

While addressing the Concert Industry Consortium in 2004, Perry Farrell told the audience of concert professionals about his own love of computers and his experiences with music downloading. He also had a few comments about paying 99 cents per song.

“Here’s my system,” Perry said. “Music that’s five years old should be a nickel. Music’s that’s three to four years old, you should pay a dime. If it’s two years old, it’s 50 cents and for new singles, 75 cents.”

However, while some music industry players might disagree with Mr. Farrell’s 75 cent pricing for new releases, others are worried that a price raise might send customers back to P2P networks and the world of illicit, yet free, downloads. Either way, changing prices for songs on iTunes may not be as easy as changing price tags.

“I don’t think it’s time yet,” said Interscope Records chairman, Jimmy Iovine, in The New York Times. “We need to convert a lot more people to the habit of buying music online. I don’t think a way to convert more people is to raise the price.”

Meanwhile, Apple is facing another patent challenge.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently rejected Apple’s application for a patent for its rotational wheel interface for the iPod, in favor of Microsoft’s application for a similar interface that was filed only a few months before Apple’s filing.

Now Creative Labs is saying that it was recently awarded a U.S. patent for the menu structure currently employed on the iPod.

In patent application #755723, The Singapore-based company describes a system of drill-down menus, where each selection leads to another list of selections. Like starting with the “Music” category, then drilling down through “Artist,” “Album” and “Song.”

“Apple tried to claim invention, but this patent dispels that,” Creative Labs President Craig McHugh said. “We are going to look at all the alternatives that patent provides. We can look at legal remedies.

McHugh also said that the patent covers technology Creative Labs developed before Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, and that the same technology is currently used in Creative Labs’ Zen and Nomad Jukebox personal players.

But while trumpeting the patent, Creative Labs has yet to say how the company will try to enforce it, leading some industry watchers to speculate that the company may be using the patent more as a publicity tool rather than to protect its intellectual property. However, McHugh didn’t seem bothered by such speculation.

“We plan to be very vigorous in the defense of our intellectual property,” McHugh said.