U.S. Patent Office To Decide Whether Patent Troll Company Actually Owns Podcasting

Podcasts are simply the done thing, in 2014: everyone’s taking their modern update on the radio show with them on the go. One company out there, seeing all the dollar signs, now claims that they invented and patented podcasting 18 years ago, and is suing anyone not paying them license fees. But consumer tech advocates are fighting back, and hoping to get regulators to make the patent trolls crawl back under their bridge.

Personal Audio claims that they have a patent on, basically, podcasting. The EFF filed a petition challenging these claims with the U.S. Patent Office in October. The matter is now set for a public hearing this Wednesday, December 17.

Personal Audio is your basic patent troll. They are classed as “non-practicing entity,” meaning they don’t make anything using the patents they own. The company neither produces nor distributes any podcasts. Instead, Personal Audio makes its money from licensing fees charged to other organizations that do produce and distribute podcasts.

In their petition, the EFF cited several examples of prior art predating Personal Audio’s patent claim. These early “internet radio shows” are internet relics from well before the time Apple put the “pod” in “podcasting,” dating to as early as 1993. Otherwise, however, they’re the same basic idea: episodic online audio content, updated regularly.

Personal Audio claims their invention of the art dates to 1996, although they filed the patent claim in 2009. In 2013, Personal Audio began filing lawsuits against podcasters that they claimed were unlawfully using their patented tools without paying proper licensing fees. Among their targets were HowStuffWorks, CBS, NBC, and comedian Adam Carolla.

A court in Texas did hold that CBS had improperly used Personal Audio’s patented tech and was liable for license fees and damages. Carolla, meanwhile, reached a settlement with Personal Audio, the terms of which are confidential.

As commerce, entertainment, and even the global economy have increasingly moved to the digital sphere, patent reform has become a more pressing issue, often spurred by obscure cases.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court unanimously held that when it comes to software patents, you can’t just patent the idea of a thing (like “software that disseminates audio recordings”) but instead actually have to make a thing (like “iTunes”).

The Court’s June ruling was part of a larger trend trying to limit what counts as original invention when it comes to software. Although the Patent Office has a duty to protect the works of legitimate inventors, software patents have, nearly everyone agrees, gotten completely out of hand. Over 40,000 software patents are issued each year.

The full set of all documents relating to the petition and hearing is available on the EFF site, here.