Podcasting Patent

On 29th July, the Silicon Valley firm VoloMedia announced it had obtained a patent on podcasting. To me as a learning technologist, such news came as both surprising and perplexing. Surprising because I had never heard of VoloMedia, and perplexing because I wonder what this will mean for the huge and varied world of podcasters, especially for those of us deploying podcasting for learning in the 21st century.

I first heard of podcasting for entertainment and information in late 2004. After reading an online article about Adam Curry and his work, I downloaded iPodderX and listened to a few episodes. When in June 2005 Apple announced iTunes would support podcasts, I remember thinking, “This is big.” And it was. It was so easy to subscribe and listen to podcasts on any topic of interest.

I have two reasons for this trip down memory lane: one is to observe that VoloMedia was not one of the introductory name in those early days, nor was their prior name of Podbridge. The other is to note that at around that same time, podcasts for learning also emerged. Dr Bill Ashraf at Bradford University in the UK was podcasting his lectures. At the University of Wales, Bangor, I worked on a similar project. At Beyond Distance we believe that the IMPALA project was the first research project in the UK to receive funding to study pedagogical podcasting. IMPALA started in June 2006.

Notable about VoloMedia’s patent claim is the way it defines podcasting, or in their words, their “method of providing episodic media content.” To quote from their press release: “Today, podcasting is 100% RSS-based. However, the patent is not RSS-dependent. Rather, it covers all episodic media downloads.” The definition of podcasting in the ‘IMPALA book’ (www.impala.com) does not stipulate RSS but only that the files be made available from a website and be opened and/or downloaded and played on a computer or handheld device. VoloMedia’s definition seems designed to cast a net wide enough to catch as many future incarnations of podcasts as possible, such as podcasts caught wirelessly and directly by various handheld devices including future versions of eReaders.

Wikipedia says of patents: “A patent is not a right to practice or use the invention. Rather, a patent provides the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale, or importing the patented invention for the term of the patent, which is usually 20 years from the filing date…”

It is one thing to exclude from podcast use those who create and use them for profit. It is quite another to exclude educational and nonprofit organisations as well. Our IMPALA and DUCKLING projects have highlighted that it is podcasting’s affordability and simplicity which put it in easy reach of educators and learners. Pedagogical podcasting must remain both affordable and simple. Moreover, podcasts as Open Educational Resources (OERs), as being developed and investigated in our OTTER project, must continue to be openly and freely available. The strength of the open educational resource movement would suggest that they will continue to be. “Excluding others,” to use the words of patent law, would be stepping backward. The future is very bright for podcasting for learning – and we need to step forward.

Terese Bird

Leave a comment


  1. Sandra Romenska-Aggarwal

     /  August 10, 2009

    In their coverage of the story The Guardian rightly note that it is very similar to the time when BT claimed they have a patent on hyperlinks – the Sargent patent.
    They tried suing a company for not paying a license fee for hosting pages that use hyperlinks. They lost the case – as you can imagine. But also, imagine if they had won – they could have claimed licensing fee from everyone using teh internet or shut down the web… Some (big businesses) never learn…

  2. Thanks Terese, this is very informative, as well as a little bit scary. I am reminded of the US based company that some years back patented basmati rice, which had been produced at the foothills of the Himalayas for a couple of thousand of years. Not having heard much about this issue since, I am hopeful that this too will pass without too much consequence.

  3. Anastasia Bird

     /  August 19, 2009

    Hey – wow, this is kind of scary. Thanks for bringing it to light, and like Mihela, I hope we don’t have to take VoloMedia too seriously here.


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