Patenting the use of all episodic media on the Web might sound absurd, but the US Patent and Trademark Office has granted just such a patent, to a company called VoloMedia. It’s a significant issue, one that could threaten the freedom of all media distribution online. Wherever you are in the world, you can help.
Intellectual property law was created in order to protect genuine inventions and innovation from exploitation. But predatory patents, based on bogus claims and attempting to stake out broad rights, threaten to do just the opposite.
Here’s a new idea: fight back.
Lawyers are the heroes this time. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s patent-busting project aims to take down unfair patents that threaten common-sense uses of technology. A number of these have applied to music and audio. The EFF has already won a big victory against what had been the worst offender – media giant Clear Channel actually successfully patented recording live shows. (No, really — recording a live gig, then burning them on the spot. The EFF was able to bust that patent.) The advocacy group also scored significant victories against patents on sending and receiving online streams and encoding media. (If someone thought they could patent your ears and charge you royalties for hearing, they probably would.)
Lawyers alone haven’t won these battles. The EFF’s clever twist is to crowd-source its case, by getting people like you to help the group document “prior art” – in plain English, to prove that something existed before the patent. (Without basic chronology, I could claim to have discovered electricity.)
In short, you can help save the freedom of online content.
VoloMedia’s Bogus Patent – And Why It’s Dangerous
VoloMedia has been granted a patent for “providing episodic media.” The patent is broad enough to endanger any independent podcast or episodic media producer. Over the summer, Volomedia’s own Murgesh Navar sidestepped concerns about patent abuse to brag on the company blog about just how broad that claim was – that even non-RSS-based episodic media belong to them:
With specific reference to our newly issued 7,568,213 patent, it was filed in November 2003, almost a year before the start of podcasting. This helps underscore the point, that for nearly six years, VoloMedia has been focused on helping publishers monetize portable media…. and has continued these efforts with the addition of a wide array of smartphone-based applications. The patent that issued yesterday helps to tie together and reinforce the value of the various technologies and services that VoloMedia has developed to help accomplish this objective. VoloMedia’s intent is to continue to work collaboratively with key participants in the industry, leveraging its unique range of products to further grow and accelerate the market. Today, podcasting is 100% RSS-based. However, the patent is not RSS-dependent. Rather, it covers all episodic media downloads. It just so happens that, today, the majority of episodic media downloads are RSS-based podcasts, which is why we titled our announcement the way we did.
Aside from the “before the start of podcasting” lie – and I believe “lie” is the only accurate word – it’s the implied threat that should send a chill down the spine of anyone using the Internet. Make no mistake about it: VoloMedia wants anyone doing podcasting, via any mechanism, to work with them. From that same blog entry:
The impact of a strong growing IP portfolio is such that we would expect new entrants into the podcasting arena to have a collaborative relationship with VoloMedia, just as do many of the current players.
From the patent itself, as approved, the technology VoloMedia claims to own is described as:
A method for providing episodic media, the method comprising: providing a user with access to a channel dedicated to episodic media, wherein the episodic media provided over the channel is pre-defined into one or more episodes by a remote publisher of the episodic media; receiving a subscription request to the channel dedicated to the episodic media from the user; automatically downloading updated episodic media associated with the channel dedicated to the episodic media to a computing device associated with the user in accordance with the subscription request upon availability of the updated episodic media, the automatic download occurring without further user interaction; and providing the user with: an indication of a maximum available channel depth, the channel depth indicating a size of episodic media yet to be downloaded from the channel and size of episodic media already downloaded from the channel, the channel depth being specified in playtime or storage resources, and the ability to modify the channel depth by deleting selected episodic media content, thereby overriding the previously configured channel depth.
Plain English translation: if what you’re doing with media has episodes, you owe VoloMedia.
If this patent were allowed to stand, and if VoloMedia were able to successfully enforce it, it would have a chilling effect on all Internet distribution. Regardless of the likelihood of their legal success, that underlies the fundamental problem with patent law – it has come completely unglued from reality. That alone ought to motivate people to fully document these issues and try to effect change.
Wondering why you haven’t heard of VoloMedia if they supposedly invented all episodic content online? Right now, they advertise “solutions” for advertising and analytics, an iTunes plug-in, and branded mobile apps for platforms like the iPhone. That’s it. RSS and previous formats date back to the 1990s, with the intention of covering episodic media across formats, just as the VoloMedia patent claims. These were published standards years before VoloMedia’s claim. That’s why demonstrating the details of this history become so important: they could strike down VoloMedia’s bogus patent.
Help Write Episodic Content’s History
VoloMedia’s patent twists the law, and common sense. But the same laws also provide for disproving a patent. If you can prove that an invention existed prior to the date for which a patent is claimed, you can undo the damage.
For that reason, the EFF is asking for your help. Knowing the readers of this site, I imagine there are people out there who know those details, or know people who do.
You’re all old enough to remember the Age Before Fall of 2003, right?
Here’s the call to action:
In order to bust this patent, we are looking for additional "prior art" — or evidence that the podcasting methods described in the patent were already in use before November 19, 2003. In particular, we’re looking for written descriptions of methods that allow a user to download pre-programmed episodic media like audio files or video files from a remote publisher, with the download occurring after the user subscribes to the episodes, and with the user continuing to automatically receive new episodes. You can read the entire prior art request here, and if you have something that could help, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out the form on our Volomedia page.
For more information:
Prior art serves a second purpose. Part of the reason predatory firms can abuse patent law is because technology’s history is so poorly written. I would like to see these kinds of bogus patents struck down, but I’d also like the real history behind today’s technologies to be told. So even beyond this legal battle, I hope that we begin to make the story of technologies like what is now called “podcasting” accurate, complete, and fair. Future generations of technologists will thank us.
Certainly, the VoloMedia patent, if enforced, would do tremendous harm to media today. The entire strength of the Web is that it doesn’t have to have homogenized distribution channels, that anyone can publish without centralized outlets or “collaborative relationships” with any big partner.
If you’ve never cared about intellectual property policy before, this might change your mind. No one should be allowed to un-invent the Internet.