By Steve Friess| Also by this reporter
ONTARIO, California -- Apple Computer's recent legal threats to rivals using the terms "pod" and "podcast" met with giggles and kvetching among podcast entrepreneurs and enthusiasts gathered here to discuss the future of the industry.
Carrying more than a week's worth of sometimes tense online chatter about Appleâ€™s recent letter to Podcast Ready claiming possible trademark infringements, the 2,500 attendees at the 2006 Podcast and Portable Media Expo on Friday alternately complained and laughed about the prospect that the iPod maker might own such seemingly generic words.
Podcast Ready, the tradeshowâ€™s top sponsor and maker of software that allows users to easily synch any mp3 player with any computer, was slapped with a letter from Apple (first made public by Wired News) saying that Apple believes the companyâ€™s name and its use of the term "MyPodder" violate Appleâ€™s trademarks.
In the letter, Apple challenges Podcast Ready's efforts to obtain its own trademark, revealing it is pursuing a trademark of its own for "iPod" and "pod." The letter claimed: "The term 'pod' has also been adopted and used extensively in the marketplace by consumers as an abbreviation to refer to Appleâ€™s iPod player. The 'iPod' and 'pod' marks indicate to consumers similar thereto originate from or are sponsored or endorsed by Apple."
The implications are that if Apple succeeded in proving that, all businesses and even hobbyists who use the term could be subject to cease-and-desist letters from Apple.
"Oh, thatâ€™s my biggest fear," said Gary Leland, owner of Podcast Pickle, a podcast directory. "I've got my name pretty well established now and I would hate to have to change it. It would be a terrible thing for thousands of podcasters out there. I'm just glad I haven't gotten one of those letters."
Yet the odds of Apple prevailing seems remote to Tricks of the Podcasting Masters co-author Rob Walch. He ranted on a special edition of his Podcast411 program earlier this week that journalists and bloggers were blowing the situation out of proportion. Walch noted that the United States Patent and Trademark Office has put the term "podcast" into its list of generic terms, a move likely to doom anyone who wishes to own it, and that another company actually has owned the trademark "pod" since 1998 as it pertains to digital music.
Walch and others think Apple may have a legitimate complaint in the use of MyPodder, which sounds like "iPod," and that the rest of this is legal posturing to prove they aggressively defend their trademarks. "I think it's bad public relations and you wonder why they're doing this and what's going on," Walch said. "But a lot of things going on in the legal realm are done without logic or common sense."
The issue is actually seen by many as something of a joke, as evidenced by the uproarious laughter that greeted keynote speaker Leo LaPorte's mention of the notion that Apple might own the word "pod."
Itâ€™s no laughing matter, though, to Podcast Ready founder and CEO Russell S. Holliman, who has lots of money invested in his Houston-based start-up company's name and says others are playing down the problem. Apple has also sent similar letters to others, including PodGolfFitness.Com, a content provider, iand Mach 5 Products, a Florida-based mom-and-pop business that sells a gizmo they call the Profit Pod that keeps track of profits in arcade and vending machines.
"The letter tells us they want us to stop using our name, to give up our name," Holliman said. "I have this name being printed onto boxes right now as we speak."
Holliman said his team is still contemplating how to respond. Their deadline is Oct. 5, and he's trying to decide whether his young startup can afford to defend against legal action Apple may take, however merited.
LaPorte used the situation to renew his ongoing, admittedly fruitless, quest to change the name of the medium from "podcasting" to something else. LaPorte, host of This Week in Tech and other podcasts, used part of his address to reiterate his belief that the term "podcast" does create confusion among consumers that they can only be played on iPods.
"I know the word is not going to go away," he told the crowd. "Podcasting existed before iTunes. It is not dependent on Apple, it is not dependant on iTunes, it is not dependant the iPod. We need to be clear about that. It is not good for us as podcasters to be this closely associated with Apple."