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Will patent trolls put a stop to your favorite podcasts?

James Careless | Sept. 1, 2014
A recent court settlement suggests that podcast fans can breathe a little easier. But it also offers a telling look at the impact patents are having on the technology world.

podcast

If you've got a mobile device, chances are you subscribe to a podcast or two. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there available to millions of listeners. And a company that holds a patent that it claims covers podcasting wants in on the action.

The patent dispute surrounding podcasting is unlikely to have an immediate affect your ability to enjoy on-demand audio programming from your favorite producers--certainly not after the patent holder failed to get what it wanted out of a high-profile court case. But the legal maneuvers involving podcasting offer a telling look at the impact patents are having on the technology world.

On patents and podcasts
You've likely never heard of Personal Audio, the East Texas company that claims it invented podcasting. At any rate, it holds several patents--including one it says for "the uploading and distribution of episodic content"--and its business revolves around collecting royalties for these patents. That makes Personal Audio a patent holding company or--in a less polite term used by tech companies and analysts--a patent troll.

In 2013, Personal Audio told podcasters they had to pay up, targeting high-profile podcasters like Adam Carolla. Carolla fought back, raising money on FundAnything for legal representation. The case was settled earlier this month, and, while the terms of the settlement are confidential, an analysis of the case by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (in the midst of its own dispute with Personal Audio) suggests that Carolla didn't pay Personal Audio a cent.

The reason: A month before the settlement was reached, Personal Audio tried to back out of the suit after discovering there was no money to be made from it--which seems like something a company claiming to have invented podcasting might have known about ahead of time. Other podcasters, including Togi Net and How Stuff Works, have been dismissed from the suit as well. Personal Audio did't reply to our request for an interview.

According to the EFF's analysis of the Personal Audio-Carolla settlement, the podcast host gave up his rights to demand that the company cover his legal fees plus his right to invalidate the patent. It's that latter concession that likely prompted Personal Audio to settle the suit.

But other people are hoping to challenge that patent, namely the EFF, which has filed a petition with the U.S. Patent Office to invalidate Personal Audio's patent. "As we cited in our petition, podcasts were being done long before Personal Audio claims to have invented podcasting, by CNN, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Carl Malamud's Geek of the Week online radio show," said EFF staff attorney Daniel Nazer, who also holds the EFF's Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents. (Yes, that is an actual title.) "Personal Audio's patent is extremely weak, and I expect that they'll lose the fight to retain it."

 

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