Personal Audio is the company behind attempts to assert claims on patents that cover podcasting and audio playlists. James Logan, its founder, believes that he and his company have been misrepresented and that they are far from being “patent trolls” – they are legitimate inventors simply protecting their “ideas”.
The label of patent troll seems an issue for Logan, who is now fighting both direct action by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to challenge the podcasting patent claim and potential legislation announced by President Obama to make trolling more difficult.
This is not the first time that a company or individual has tried to defend itself from the label of patent troll. Ex-Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myrhvold’s company, Intellectual Ventures, has tried particularly hard to claim that it is a service for innovation and not just an out-and-out patent troll operation.
Logan has taken a more unusual move to defending himself against patent troll claims. He took to the website Slashdot to answer questions from the most vociferous of the anti-troll geek community, in order to set the record straight. But most of his answers justified the patent system and intellectual property generally, a defence that included comparisons with the movie industry: “If there were no copyright laws, do you think AMC would spend $3 million on each episode of Breaking Bad?” he said.
Logan’s use of associations and similes in his arguments was weak but reflected his main aim of trying to reconstruct an image of Personal Audio as the victim and not the aggressor of the piece. Copyright issues have little to do with the issues of patent enforcement but, more importantly, comparing Personal Audio, who produces nothing, with companies protecting their rights on things they have actually produced is simply spurious.
Possibly recognising this, Logan then went on to justify inventors who patent ideas without having brought these ideas into practice. The key issue with the examples he referenced is that these inventions and patents came before or at least at the same time as the products coming to market. This is again a big difference with Personal Audio’s claims. Nobody took their patents for podcasting or playlists and turned them into products. This happened completely independently of the patents by several different companies around the world. In fact, it all started happening before Logan even sought his first patent in 1996.
It is one thing for someone to invent something, show it can work and then have someone else bring it to market. It is completely another to describe functionality in such broad terms that it can be conveniently retrofitted after the fact to anything someone else comes up with. Logan used the example of Nikola Tesla as an inventor who extensively patented ideas but didn’t necessarily bring these ideas to market. This is true but, again, Tesla worked directly with companies to do so. He also experimented to get the basis of his ideas working. The AC induction motor and AC power systems, for example, were developed with Westinghouse.
Logan’s only attempt to implement “podcasting” was to put magazine issues onto cassette tapes and mail them to people on request. A vivid imagination is required to equate this with the type of podcasting that is implemented on the internet today. Also, it was an obvious and necessary step to the dissemination of audio and video. Nobody actually needed to “invent” the idea, because as soon as you started streaming music or audio, someone would have asked for that to be packaged for offline listening.
The other issue likely to be contested is that Personal Audio’s podcasting patent was a continuation patent, which was granted in 2012 from the original 1996 patent. These types of patents are contentious because the language can change to introduce new ideas that make it more in line with products of the day.
From the remaining questions and answers, it seemed clear that Personal Audio’s patents were only relevant in the US and that they would be used to go after the large companies such as Discovery Communications, who owns HowStuffWorks. Personal Audio has had success in the past, winning $US8 million from Apple for infringement of its “Playlist Patent”.
After all that, did Logan convince the Slashdot crowd with his arguments? Well, one comment sums up the general sentiment. In answer to the comment of “Wow, if you believe this guy” someone replied:
“Smart sociopaths are good at that kind of thing. So are compulsive liars, and lawyers.”