One of the curiosities of the Internet age is the rebirth of the radio star, which, allegedly, was killed by video. The accessibility afforded by the Web, and the turmoil in the world of traditional journalism, has allowed for radio podcasts to become a powerful venue for excellent production, storytelling, and independent journalism. I was planning on writing a top ten list of podcasts everyone should know, and I'll still compile it (next week!). However, I recently listened to a This American Life episode that exposed me to the appallingly negligent practice of patent trolling. It's an immensely lucrative shadow economy, bankrupt of morality and entirely reactionary.
Patent trolls are companies that buy software patents -- bits of coding found in every corner of the Web, really -- and then sue the businesses and entrepreneurs who have derived income, however indirectly, from their use. Silicon Valley is riddled with these suits, and it was there that the term was coined; there are trolls under every bridge, demanding their unearned share of the tech boom profits.
A software startup, for example, could invent a sleek new way to display media on a browser, and in turn be sued for infringing on a patent claiming ownership over "embeddable code." This sort of vague, widely applicable terminology is what makes these opportunists so dangerous. In the early days of the Internet, the Patent Office was leery about issuing patents for software for the very reason that code often resembles language, and thus is easily manipulated in the courts.
One troll of note is Personal Audio, which claims to own patents on playlists, "episodic content", "audio messaging," and "personalized recommendations." The implication is that any software engineer who embeds a playlist on a web page, or designs a podcast platform, or enables the ability to share a link, is technically liable.
What's worse, patent trolls tend to target smaller companies and even individuals. If Personal Audio, for instance, were to sue Facebook or Twitter, the potential for drawn out legal wrangling would make their overhead too large (though they have scored a few victories against Apple). To make trolling profitable, companies like Personal Audio have targeted more easily digestible enterprises like the podcasting network ACE Broadcasting, the excellent comic podcast WTF with Marc Maron, and even owners of cafes that offer free WiFi. Dozens of other podcasters have been sued or threatened. Rather than face the potentially catastrophic cost of entering litigation with these lampreys, they usually settle out of court for a large, if slightly more manageable, sum.
Allowing this practice to continue would set a dangerous precedent for the tech sector, one of the last few innovative (if at times intangible) industries the U.S. can claim. Most of all, patent trolling undermines the legitimacy of the patent system and stifles creativity. The system exists to protect inventors and the fruit of their hard work, not to score easy money for companies that make no product and provide no service.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation estimates troll lawsuits to have cost the U.S. economy $80 billion in 2011. That's a disturbing number, yes, and we should fight to prevent any more money siphoned from inventors and producers. It strikes me most, however, that it would also be a terrible shame to lose this chance to experience once again the power radio has to create compelling narratives.
Before smartphone ubiquity and the Internet, before commercial aviation and the interstate highway system, radio knit this country together. The Fireside Chats, one of the first large-scale social media endeavors in this country, enabled Franklin Delano Roosevelt to speak directly to all citizens who owned a radio. During one of the most turbulent periods in America's history, FDR was able to explain his massive undertakings in infrastructure and social reform, and allow the citizenry to feel included in the dialog of running a nation.
Storytelling has the power to bring meaning to the life of the teller and empathy to that of the listener. Radio podcasting is no exception. The podcasts I await eagerly each week have enlightened me to issues about which I had no previous knowledge, including this one. I've heard about lives that I will not lead and about places I would have never known. Like all the best stories do, they've given me such profound perspective. It's that lift and pull of the guts you feel as the way you look at the world changes for good -- radio does that so well.
We often bemoan the Internet for depriving us of real human interaction; let's instead use its miraculous communication potential to craft, perfect, and disseminate our voices, our stories and our investigative reporting to each other. There are many looming difficulties on the horizon in this new millennium, and allowing patent trolls to deprive us of a growing, vibrant platform for discussing them would be intolerable.
Listen to the TAL episode above for a more complete understanding of the issue, and visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where you can fill out a petition to implement safeguards against patent trolling. Check back next week for the cherriest cuts of my podcast library. It's worth defending.