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Old 07-30-2009, 09:05 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Podcasting is now owned by VoloMedia

Forget Pod Show and Adam Currie... according to this Ars article, VoloMedia has been given the patent rights to digital episodic media distribution (podcasting).

Ars Technica -

Hold onto your iPhones—a company called VoloMedia was yesterday granted a patent on a "method for providing episodic media content." Or, as the company puts it in today's announcement, VoloMedia now owns the "US patent for podcasting." Prepare to pay up?

Even the patent's chief inventor, Murgesh Navar, knows that the claim is controversial. Before anyone had time to start asking questions about the patent, Navar authored a blog post explaining just why he's entitled to control podcasting. The short answer: he's been working on it for years.

The patent in question "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... Today, podcasting is 100 percent 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."

That's right: the claim that this is the "US podcasting patent" is actually too narrow. In Navar's view, it actually covers all episodic download services. If Hulu starts offering shows for download, for instance, it will apparently need to partner with VoloMedia.

"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," wrote Navar. Or, again, "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."

This sounds like a request to pay up and sign a licensing agreement. Such licenses can (usually) be sought only after the patent is officially granted, but a company does have a limited ability to "go back in time" and negotiate fees. Once a patent is far enough along in the process, the applicant can notify relevant companies about the application, tell them that it's in process, and request license fees. If the patent is in fact granted, the applicant can go to court to seek fees from the date of its notification. It remains unclear if VoloMedia has done this.

VoloMedia tells Ars that it doesn't intend to embark on a shakedown operation, though. "Our focus is to generate revenues through our products and technologies," a company rep tells us. "VoloMedia is not entertaining or pursuing any licensing conversations... VoloMedia’s main 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, not introduce new impediments."
Who is VoloMedia?
VoloMedia is an advertising and tracking firm that specializes in podcast-style content, and it has a long list of clients that includes MSNBC, ABC, Fox News, Slate, Scientific American, Public Radio International, and more.

While Navar says that the company has been around for "nearly six years," the company was actually founded in 2005, but took over IP from Serenade Systems—another company founded by Navar back in 2002.

As for the patent application, it says that it was filed in 2008—but it serves as a continuance to a 2003 patent. Such procedural moves can keep patent applications alive for years, though this can lead to obvious problems as applicants try to game the system by changing a patent's language over time to better describe whatever is currently hot in the marketplace. The USPTO has made rules changes to prevent applicants from "moving the goalposts" this way, and there's no evidence that Navar's drawn-out application process was done in bad faith.

The patent describes its "exemplary embodiment" this way: "The method includes providing a user with a dedicated episodic media channel and receiving a subscription request to the dedicated episodic media channel from the user. Updated episodic media associated with the dedicated episodic media channel is then automatically downloaded to a computing device associated with the user. The download occurs in accordance with the subscription request of the user." Certainly sounds like a podcast.

Reading the patent as a lay person is frustrating, though, since it's hard to pin down what has been "invented." Downloading a file? No. RSS feeds? No. Checking files against an RSS feed and downloading only those that are new? Possibly, though this seems more like a combination of obvious concepts rather than a new "invention" of anything. The patent contains all sorts of extra ideas, such as pushing a button on some iPod-like device in order to get more information about the podcast now playing or to buy merchandise, but much of this would apply only to selected podcasts, not the concept in general.

Given the stakes involved, the issue will no doubt be hashed out by patent lawyers if VoloMedia pushes to partner with companies who don't want them as a partner. We spoke with Andy Hein of the Red Chalk Group, an IP consulting firm, who oversees his company's "exhaustive invalidity service," and he explained how such a process works. If a company like VoloMedia emerges with a broad patent and goes after deep-pocketed industry players, those companies are likely to seek out patent invalidation services to either knock out the patent or to provide valuable leverage in a trial (which runs about $3 million-$5 million, on average).

Hein notes that digging up prior art on such patents is a big job, but one with significant payoffs. If investigators can find prior art, they can move to invalidate a patent. And that art can be in any language from any country. Red Chalk, for instance, is currently searching Korean, Japanese, European, and American sources for its clients; even digging up papers from "esoteric conferences" can be good enough to provide companies with ammunition when patent holders come calling.

VoloMedia also announced today that it has filed for twelve patents; the patent on podcasting is only the first to emerge.
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