Extortionists now have a new type of victim to pick on: podcasters. U.S. podcaster Eric Marcus has fallen prey to a hijacker who has diverted his really simple syndication (RSS) feed and is allegedly demanding money to release it. Marcus, who runs the Vegan.com site and produces the Erik's Diner podcasts, is looking for legal redress.
A podcast is audio content that is distributed to listeners over the Internet through an RSS feed. According to press reports, Marcus discovered that downloads of his podcast had suddenly diminished after he had gradually won an audience of 1,500 regular listeners.
Marcus found that Yahoo has an RSS listing for his podcast on its podcasts.yahoo.com directory, but that the listing directs potential visitors to podkeyword.com rather than to vegan.com. He also discovered that Apple's iTunes online music store associates the podkeyword.com Web address with the Erik's Diner podcast.
Marcus asked podkeyword.com to make a listing change. But the site allegedly replied that it would only do so if Marcus made a payment or permanently agreed to its terms, according to press reports.
"I can't say much about the specific case because of my client's (Marcus) attorney-client privilege rights," said Colette Vogele, head of the San Francisco, California-based law firm Vogele & Associates and a fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. "I can say that we are investigating several potential claims and options."
Vogele has posted a report on Marcus' problems with podkeyword.com on her blog at cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blogs/vogele/.
Technology and Law
"I do think this is a classic situation of a new technology trying to fit into existing legal structures," Vogele said. "This is not uncommon for Internet-related disputes, and it's one reason why the U.S. Copyright Act was amended in 1998 to try and address some technological advances."
In her blog, Vogele said that, overnight, Marcus lost 75 percent of his audience as a result of the hijacking.
"RSS hijacking is different (from domain hijacking)," Marcus wrote in an e-mail quoted on Vogele's blog. "Most podcasters are not technically savvy, and the technique used for hijacking their feeds doesn't involve swiping passwords or overt illegal methods."
Rather, he wrote, it involves finding a target podcast and creating your own unique URL for it on a Web site you control. "You then point your URL to the RSS feed of the target podcast," he explained. "Next, you do what it takes to make sure that, as new podcast search engines come to market, the page each engine creates for your target podcast points to your URL instead of the podcast creator's official URL."
Vogel said in her blog that once a hijacker has diverted the target podcaster's RSS feed, he or she can wait until a convenient moment when the victim's audience has grown sufficiently and then demand payment. The podcaster is vulnerable because the hijacker can divert the URL pointer to any other podcast and the podcaster's audience will disappear quickly.
In her blog, Vogele advised podjacking victims to write to the offenders with a demand to halt the conduct. Victims also should inform podcast directories and search engines of the occurrence and consult a lawyer about possible claims, she wrote.
Although there is currently no specific legal remedy, Vogele said in her blog that she is looking into possible legal claims, such as unfair competition, trademark infringement or dilution, computer fraud and abuse, trespass, right of publicity, and misappropriation.
Yahoo Weighs In
As for Yahoo's unwitting role in the matter, the company expressed dismay.
"Open content formats provide tremendous benefit to podcasters and their audiences, and it's disappointing that individuals are abusing the technology that the emerging podcasting industry is built on," said Yahoo spokesperson Meagan Busath.
"Yahoo's goal is to help grow the industry by providing a valuable service that brings podcasters and listeners together," said Busath. "We are committed to working with the community to help identify solutions for broad industry challenges like this."