Podcast Hijacked, Held for Ransom

Podcaster Erik Marcus seeks legal redress when a cyber-squatter substitutes itself for his RSS feed, losing him listeners.

In an assault reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, Podcaster Erik Marcus recently found that his RSS feed had been inexplicably redirected.

According to Marcus, rather than fully cooperate to address the situation, the cyber-squatter is demanding payment or permanent agreement to terms, and Marcus is seeking legal redress for this new form of Internet extortion.

Marcus publishes Vegan.com and the "Eriks Diner" Podcasts.

Over the course of the past year, Marcus has built his listenership from 100 people per show up to some 1,500. Over the past few weeks, he noticed that Yahoo Inc. had created an entry for his show on its beta site, Podcasts.yahoo.com.

The page had an RSS feed belonging not to Vegan.com, however, but to a site named Podkeyword.com.

Marcus shared with Ziff Davis Internet News a letter he sent to a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property and who has agreed to work with him on his case.

In the letter, Marcus said he contacted Yahoo repeatedly for about a month. The company never responded. Yahoo had failed to correct the RSS listing and had also failed to return phone calls seeking comment for this story by the time it was posted.

Marcus e-mailed Podkeyword directly in order to "nip this problem in the bud rather than let it grow," he said in his letter to his lawyer, Colette Vogele.

Podkeyword honored his request, Marcus said, after which his listener numbers abruptly collapsed. Marcus came to find that Apple Computer Inc.s iTunes service, which shields RSS information from its users, had also picked up the Podkeyword URL.

"This has cost me more than 1,000 listeners per show," Marcus wrote in the letter.

Marcus contacted Apple, which has to date not fixed the URL.

Marcus then wrote back to Podkeyword to ask that his listing be temporarily reinstated on Podkeyword while he worked to fix things with Apple. Podkeyword reportedly responded that the listing would be reinstated only if Marcus provided an unspecified payment or agreed permanently to its terms.

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The manner in which the purported hijacking occurred exemplifies the fact that RSS feeds are far more vulnerable to squatters than Web site domains. The method doesnt require stolen passwords or other overtly illegal methods.

Rather, it merely involves finding a target Podcast and creating a unique URL for it on a Web site that the hijacker can control. The hijacker then points his URL to the RSS feed of the target Podcast.

Next, the hijacker does whatever it takes to ensure that, as new Podcast engines come to market, the page each engine creates for the target Podcast points to the hijackers URL instead of to the Podcast creators official URL.

Vogele, a non-residential fellow at Stanford Universitys Center for Internet and Society and head of the firm Vogele & Associates, told Ziff Davis Internet News that she is mulling over a number of approaches to determine which laws might pertain in the case, including claims of unfair competition, trademark infringement/dilution, computer fraud and abuse, trespass, right of publicity and misappropriation.

Californias right of publicity law, for example, stipulates that an individual has a right to control his or her likeness and image, including, most likely, voice, she said. If Podkeyword is in fact making money off of Marcus Podcast, it might be at risk of being found guilty of violating right of publicity, Vogele said.

Next Page: Applying IP concepts to RSS.