A humorous take on patent troll troubles

Those who have been following the North Carolina General Assembly’s recent debates about patent trolls might appreciate the latest edition of Joel Stein‘s “The Awesome Column” in TIME magazine.

I also found out that if I’m going to start a humor website–which I’m considering, since there are not enough websites–I’m going to have to deal with patent trolls. These are entities that don’t actually make products but own patents for vague ideas and send out mass letters threatening to sue unless you pay them. There are a lot of them, mostly because while the federal government issued fewer than 78,000 patents a year from 1966 to 1986, it has handed out more than 250,000 in each of the past two years. Someone apparently got sick of looking at that big “pending” pile and just stamped them all.

To get started, I began looking into the trolls who would affect my business the most. Getting in touch with them to find out how much they wanted was surprisingly difficult, since the patents are owned by shell companies owned by other shell companies, none of which have readily available websites, phone numbers or employees for angry people to get in touch with. This is exactly how I plan to run my humor website.

Eventually I tracked down Brad Liddle, the lawyer representing Personal Audio, which has a patent that it claims relates to podcasting, which is something I’ll probably do as part of my website since talking is even easier than writing. He said I’d have to sign a nondisclosure agreement to find out how much Personal Audio wanted from me, which I refused to do, since as a journalist I believe that free information is a key tenet of democracy. Also, it sounded as if signing it might involve using a fax machine.

So I called some of the victims instead. Comedian Adam Carolla, who has raised $400,000 to wage a case against Personal Audio, said the company was asking for a penny a download–about 40% of what he has netted over the past five years. Marc Maron, who also got a letter from Personal Audio, told me I wouldn’t be able to afford that kind of money, based on my potential podcasting revenue. “I know you’re the fancy, back-page-of-TIME guy, but how much are you going to make?” he asked. It’s way less than he even thinks, since I’m now the next-to-last-page-of-TIME guy.

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