Late this year I hope to start podcasting.  I bought the microphone, registered at the Apple Store, and am now limbering up the vocal chords before taking the plunge.  Sounds so simple, and it’s cheap. Or so I thought.

If my podcast turns out to be a money spinner (which is highly unlikely), I might expect a call from Personal Audio LLC.  In 2012, this company claimed it had “invented” podcasting, and has a patent to prove it.  According to Patent 8,112,504, the company claims to have designed a “system for disseminating media content representing episodes in a serialized sequence,”

What do we know about Personal Audio?  Apparently it has not sold a product since 1998.  Instead it makes its money from suing major podcasters who refuse to pay it a license fee, with some success.  In 2011, a federal jury in Texas awarded Personal Audio $8 million, in its lawsuit against Apple.  This has encouraged the company to go after others, with the Adam Carolla Show and HowStuffWorks among its targets.

The mission of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is to protect the “freedoms in the networked world”, and it sees so-called “patent trolls” as a significant threat.  According to its website, trolls use “patents as legal weapons, instead of actually creating any new products or coming up with new ideas,” and it alleges that Personal Audio is patent trolling.

Trolling is not only lucrative, but also easy to do.  The overworked patent offices, particularly in the U.S., often grant patents for ideas that are neither new nor revolutionary.  Trolls seize on patents that are vague, and describe function rather than going to the trouble and cost of inventing a clever gismo that makes the patent a reality.

Most general ideas about clever technologies have been described in science fiction books.  A case in point is the work of Albert Robida, an artist and science fiction writer, often seen as a competitor of Jules Verne.  In the late nineteenth century, one of his engravings show a man sitting on a mountain top listening to music through earphone that are connected to a small device tucked into his top pocket.  It could easily be an advertisement if iPods.  Another Robida engraving showed people watching a flat screen TV in their home.  The events depicted are from the other side of the world, all very familiar to us today with satellite broadcasting.  Going back even further, Leonardo Da Vinci can lay claims to inventing the submarine and helicopter, but like Robida he did not have the technology to make them work.  That’s the hard part of inventing, and the propensity of patent offices to grant patents to fanciful ideas will only go to stifle innovation.

Rather than encouraging innovation, the patent system has become a money spinner for trolls.   A 2012 study, published by the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California found that lawsuits filed by troll-like entities grew from 22 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2011.  . “From all appearances, lawsuits filed are only the tip of the iceberg, and a major operating company may face hundreds of invitations to license for every lawsuit,” the authors write.

A quick look at Personal Audio’s patent shows how easy it is to claim valuable intellectual property.  Podcasting has been around for some time, but the patent was issued in 2012.  By way of explanation, the company claims that it had filed papers in 1996 that covered the same technology.  At this is not the company’s only source of income.  It has already collected license fees from Samsung, Motorola, RIM, Archos, Coby, Sirius, LG and HTC, who decided that it was not worth the fight.

Without a change in the law, trolls will continue to prosper, as many of their targets pay up rather than risk extremely expensive patent litigation.  In the meantime, the EFF has offered to help anyone who has received a letter from Personal Audio, and they can email the Foundation at podcasting@eff.org.

 

 

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