MBTA sued for patent infringement over e-mail alerts on late trains, buses
A pair of foreign companies today sued the MBTA, alleging the system it uses to notify passengers of late trains and buses violates two patents they hold for compiling information on the whereabouts of vehicles and then notifying people of their status.
The lawsuit-happy companies - they've filed dozens of similar lawsuits since 2002 against software vendors, parcel companies, online ticketing services, airlines and airports - seek unspecified oodles of money from the MBTA and an end to the T-Alert system. They sued in US District Court in Boston.
ArrivalStar, based in Luxembourg, and Melvino Technologies, of the British Virgin Islands, do not actually make anything, but own numerous U.S. patents related to the idea of notifying customers of the status of vehicles and shipments.
The patents at issue:
Base station system and method for monitoring travel of mobile vehicles and communicating notification messages
Notification system and method that informs a party of vehicle delay.
Patent Trolls Erode the Foundation of the U.S. Patent System.
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Owning a patent on e-mail?
Riiiight. That's like NBC suing CBS for broadcasting television shows.
Smarten up your snark
Will baby, you really need to smarten up your sophomoric snark. Head over to slashdot or google and search on patent troll. Maybe next time you'll manage a one-liner to sound like you know something.
Can patents be that obvious?
I actually clicked through to the patent listing. To Will's credit, it does some pretty self-evident. A system checks to see if trains/buses are running on-time or late and sends a message. Would they sue me if I called my boss "Gee, the trains are late, but I should be at work in about 10 minutes." ?
"An advance notification system and method notifies passengers of the impending arrival of a transportation vehicle, for example, a school bus, at a particular vehicle stop. The system generally includes an on-board vehicle control unit for each vehicle and a base station control unit for making telephone calls to passengers in order to inform the passengers when the vehicle is a certain predefined time period and/or distance away from the vehicle stop. The VCU compares elapsed time and/or traveled distance to the programmed scheduled time and/or traveled distance to determine if the vehicle is on schedule. If the vehicle is behind or ahead of schedule, the VCU calls the BSCU, which then adjusts its calling schedule accordingly. "
I'll Bet ...
I bet trains run on time in Luxembourg. Maybe the T should just give in, admit guilt, and turn over the system to these companies. Couldn't be worse, right? Then maybe s few more patent troll lawsuits against Fed-Ex and UPS and the T's bonds can be paid and management can head off to a "strategic planning session" in the British Virgin Islands headquarters. Win - win!
Admitting guilt does not pass the reins of the system over to the company. It will just mean they have to stop using the system (since the plaintiff appears to be asking for an injunction) and then pay lots of money. Neither of which will help the T run better. They make the T raise your fare though.
Can the MBTA be sued?
Isn't the MBTA an arm of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? And if so, doesn't that mean it's immune from suits under most federal law, including patent infringement, under the Eleventh Amendment? I remember the Supreme Court holding in 1999 that Florida was immune from a bank's suit against the state of Florida for patent infringement. (College Savings Bank vs. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board, for you law geeks out there.) At least on first blush, this seems no different to me.
Wow, who knew?
...that someone held the patent on Disabled Trains, Signal Problems, Police Action, and Unruly Passenger?
The Weak Link
The weak link in the troll's suit seems to be inherent in the patent system in general: that is to say, a patent on a system assumes that the system has a single operator. The MBTA has run afoul of these trolls by deploying a system that included all the pieces defined in their patent.
So instead of fighting this, what happens if the MBTA gives up (for the moment) and decides to simply install transponders on all their vehicles, publish their basic schedule in a machine readable form online, and leave the closing of the loop to third parties who can do whatever they like with these two data points?
Here's a very old (June 2005) link to coverage of a visualization made with Google Ride-finder. Clicking through to the cited maps only produces 404 errors (sorry), but the article describing them illustrates them well enough to understand the potential.
Given that this the the Boston transit system, I doubt there's any shortage of local nerds who could create an iPhone app that uses the owners location as the third pointed needed to resolve a bus or train's ETA into "x minutes early / on time / y minutes late " data points. Moreover, many of these people probably see the patent system as being so oppressive that a clever public hack like this would be worth doing on general principle (nevermind that they'd be making their own commutes easier in the process).
As an extra added bonus, the MBTA could install free wi-fi nodes at their stations, and equip them to work with these apps, harvesting the data they contain to power in-station signage. It would be a genuinely good example of a public / private partnership in action.
By distributing the essential operations between the transit service and the smart-phone enabled public, then creating separate nodes to build a new service layer on top of the public element, you leave the troll firing arrows into a situation where neither party (the MBTA or the App developers) holds enough of the system's essential elements to make them a target of the suit.
Of course, if someone else has patented "putting a GPS transponder on a bus", then this unravels rather quickly. At the same time, the legal fight has been shifted to a decision that the Patent Office will have an even harder time defending.
Just a thought. Hope it helps.