A patent troll known as Personal Audio LLC has been on a rampage to collect royalties from podcasters across the land, claiming that it invented “episodic content.” In its latest victory, a jury in East Texas this week ordered media giant CBS to pay the troll $1.3 million.
The news comes after comedian Adam Carolla fought the troll to an apparent stalemate last month, but failed to kill its patent. As a result, [company]Personal Audio[/company] remains free to continue its shakedown racket, which involves demanding a license fee from anyone who produces a podcast — and threatening them with expensive litigation if they refuse.
The premise of the lawsuits appears to be absurd given that the troll’s “invention” is, in the words of one critic, “nothing more than an online table of contents.” Still, Personal Audio has flourished since, under the twisted business model of patent trolling, the trolls’ targets face a terrible choice: either settle or face hellish legal costs and a potential jury verdict (the troll is largely shielded from such costs since it is just a shell company with no real assets).
While patent trolling has afflicted large sections of the tech and retail industries, the podcast patent troll is particularly notorious. In an exposé on trolling last year by NPR’s “This American Life,” Personal Audio’s alter-ego, a man named Jim Logan, stated that he deserved the patent monopoly even though he had never made a podcast.
There is hope, however, that Logan’s shakedown campaign could hit a brick wall. Despite the latest Texas jury verdict, court filings show that [company]CBS[/company] is still waiting on the outcome of several motions that could lead a judge to declare the patent is invalid as a matter of law. One of these, filed last week, is based on a recent Supreme Court decision called Alice that ruled that an old or abstract idea — like a table of contents — is not eligible for a patent simply because it is carried out on a computer. In recent weeks, judges have used Alice to shred a dozen or so software-related patents.
As a result, the jury verdict could be knocked out, and the podcast patent could be killed — either by the trial judge or on appeal. Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is pursuing a challenge of its own at the Patent Office, asking that an administrative judge to declare that the patent is invalid. Surely, some judge, somewhere will have the sense to put a stop to this.
The upshot is that, one way or the other, the podcasting patent troll is likely to be crushed eventually. But in the meantime, Personal Audio stands as another monument to America’s broken patent system, which fails to encourage innovation and forces companies to throw money down a legal rat hole instead.