“Patent troll” targets transit agencies over vehicle tracking apps

For years, technology companies have battled “patent trolls,” individuals and firms that do not produce products, but instead sue to assert patent rights to various innovations. A working paper from Boston University Law School, charges that such lawsuits drained $500 billion from tech companies over 20 years by exploiting weaknesses in a patent system designed more for an industrial than a service-oriented, high-tech world.

“[P]atents on software and business methods … have ‘fuzzy boundaries,’” according to the white paper. “The scope of these patents is not clear, they are often written in vague language, and technology companies cannot easily find them and understand what they claim.”

The lawsuits hinder the economy, the paper concluded, because they reduce the ability of tech firms to innovate.

Now at least one patent troll is targeting U.S. public transit agencies, over bus- and train-tracking applications the agencies make available to customers via smartphones and the Web. The apps, now in common use, represent significant innovation for transit agencies and a boon to riders.

One of the latest targets is the Cleveland RTA, subject of a February 28 federal lawsuit. Other suits have accused dozens of other transit providers, and many private firms with transportation operations, of patent infringement.

The plaintiff is ArrivalStar, a firm enforcing patents owned by Martin Jones, of Vancouver, B.C. In 2003, Jones patented an idea involving automated phone calls to customers, alerting them to bus arrivals. The U.S. Patent Office description:

“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.”

That may not sound exactly like at transit-tracking app. But ArrivalStar typically seeks $50,000-$75,000 from transit agencies, and the agencies typically settle rather than challenging the claim in court. King County, WA, settled for $80,000 last year, Ars Technica reports.

Help may be on the way. The Electronic Freedom Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, is building a case to challenge ArrivalStar’s key patent. “If left unchallenged, the broad language in ArrivalStar’s patent could potentially cover any system or technology that tracks a vehicle along a predetermined route and then notifies a potential passenger or package recipient of the vehicle’s status,” the group says.

EFF is seeking examples of vehicle-tracking systems that predate Jones’ patent, in hopes of undercutting his claim to invention. Interested parties may submit such information at priorart@eff.org.