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Thank 'This American Life' and ask them to set an example

by Brett Smith Contributions Published on Jul 29, 2011 06:10 PM
'This American Life' did some great reporting about software patents. Ask them to help solve these problems and offer the show in patent-free formats.

This American Life is a radio show that airs weekly on public stations throughout the United States. Their most recent episode, “When Patents Attack!”, covers a story that's familiar to many of us. In an hour-long show, they explain what patent trolls do, illustrate how patent litigation and threats hamper software development, and investigate the inner workings of one particularly notorious troll company, Intellectual Ventures.

We've been talking about the dangers of software patents for a while now, from essays like Richard Stallman's “Patent Reform Is Not Enough” to the End Software Patents wiki and the Patent Absurdity film. “When Patents Attack!” is helping to spread the word about these same issues. Reporter Laura Sydell and producer Alex Blumberg track the history of one specific Intellectual Ventures patent, and the effort makes for a memorable story. (Our executive director John Sullivan was also consulted a few times over the course of the show's production.) As always, we learn that only a few patent holders benefit from software patents; developers and users suffer because some software techniques simply can't be used, and the price of computer products goes up to cover the costs of patent licensing or litigation.

Reporting like this can help us raise awareness about the problems with software patents, and build support for abolition. But This American Life could also take more direct action to help tackle this issue. Downloads and streams of the show are available in MP3 format. Even though MP3 is ubiquitous, it's patent-encumbered, and the patent holders haven't been shy about litigating it. In one prominent example, Lucent filed suit claiming that Microsoft infringed MP3-related patents, and won a record-breaking $1.52 billion in damages in the initial trial (they later settled without disclosing financial terms).

This American Life could have even more of an impact by making the show available in a format like Ogg Vorbis, which was designed with an eye toward avoiding patent risks.

Please join us as we thank the TAL production crew for their reporting in “When Patents Attack!”, and ask them to make the show available in Ogg Vorbis—removing the requirement that people follow MP3 patent terms in order to listen. You can reach them by email at (and CC or BCC us at If you're on Twitter (please don't join on account of us), you can direct your comments to @ThisAmerLife.

When patent-encumbered media formats become common, it can hinder free software adoption; people are less likely to switch to free software if they have trouble listening to music or watching videos when they do. Fortunately, there's been a lot of good news on this front in the past few years. Boston public radio station WBUR started providing an Ogg Vorbis stream after we petitioned them, and the Google-led push behind the WebM format offers new promise for free video. This American Life has helped illustrate how these issues affect all of us—now let's encourage them to help out and be part of the solution.

Update: see the follow-up blog post, Helping out This American Life—with an Ogg copy of the show.

Update 2: We're now running a petition asking This American Life to use Ogg Vorbis. Sign today and make your voice heard—we plan to deliver the first batch of signatures on September 7.

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