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In the 1990s, Jim Logan started a company called Personal Audio, and this was his idea: Pick your favorite newspaper or magazine articles, and he'll send you audio versions of those articles -- through the mail -- on cassette tapes. NPR's Planet Money first reported on Logan's failed business venture last year because Logan claimed his patent over this article-to-audio format covered podcasts too.
Personal Audio sued some famous podcasts, including Adam Carolla's and HowStuffWorks. To other podcasters, Personal Audio sent letters demanding license fees.
Carolla has raised more than $400,000 for what he calls the "Save Our Podcasts Legal Defense Fund," which he intended to use to litigate Personal Audio's claims. Coincidentally (read: not that coincidentally), Personal Audio asked to dismiss its case against Carolla, but Carolla refused.
Trollers Gonna Troll
In a press release, Personal Audio lamented Carolla's "cynical exploitation" of the lawsuit to gain more listeners. Nothing could be further from the truth. Carolla wants nothing less than Personal Audio's patent canceled, which it should be. Patent trolls -- companies that do nothing "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" and make all of their money exclusively by suing other companies for patent infringement and collecting licensing fees -- skitter back to their hidey-holes whenever they're challenged.
Like the schoolyard bully, patent trolls frequently beat up the smaller kids (who can't afford to take a patent case all the way to trial), extracting lunch money in the form of licensing fees and settlements. But once someone bigger than they are agrees to fight behind the bleachers after class, they suddenly want to go home.
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Standing Up for What's Right
That's really what's going on here. Carolla doesn't need a lawsuit to get people to listen to his show. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office routinely issues patents that it shouldn't have, that are based on unpatentable concepts or are flagrantly prior art. Thanks in part to the publicity surrounding lawsuits like Personal Audio's, the Obama administration announced in June that it intended to crack down on patent trolls.
It's one thing for someone to patent something novel, which is the purpose of the patent system. It's entirely another for someone to repackage something that's already in existence and claim that he invented it all along. It's disingenuous, wastes money, and actually stifles innovation, as it chills the introduction of new inventions through the threat of expensive lawsuits.