Patent Troll Sues Transit Agencies For Releasing Real-Time Transit Info

Martin Kelly Jones sued the MBTA for providing Boston bus riders with real-time arrival information. Photo: ##http://www.mbta.com/about_the_mbta/news_events/?id=15643&month=&year=##MBTA##

Lloyd Dobbler, John Cusack’s generation-defining character in Say Anything, notably said, “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career.”

Martin Kelly Jones lives by a similar creed. He doesn’t make or sell anything. Instead he makes his living by attacking transit agencies for using real-time tracking technologies that he says he owns. It’s a practice known as “patent trolling.” Lloyd Dobbler probably wouldn’t want to be a patent troll either, but Jones has made it into his entire career.

Jones filed his first transit-related patent in 1993, securing rights to the idea of letting parents know when school buses were running late. More than 30 additional patents of similar ideas followed.

Jones doesn’t develop or sell any technology relating to real-time vehicle tracking, but that hasn’t stopped him (and his two offshore firms, ArrivalStar and Melvino Technologies) from punishing anyone who does. To date, he’s filed more than 100 lawsuits against anyone who uses such technology – everyone from Ford to Abercrombie & Fitch to American Airlines to FedEx. He’s one of the top 25 filers of patent infringement suits according to a database maintained by the patent tracking site PriorSmart.com.

Lately, Jones has focused his litigious impulse on transit agencies around the country. According to a brief by the Georgetown Climate Center, “ArrivalStar has brought suit against at least ten transit entities, and at least eight more have received demand letters.” GCC, which convenes the Transportation Climate Initiative, worries that the suits can create a chilling effect, discouraging agencies from employing vehicle tracking technologies. Providing real-time bus arrival information has been shown to increase ridership [PDF], taking cars off the road and reducing vehicle emissions.

Jones’ strategy is not to sue transit agencies for all they’re worth, but to offer them a relatively low-cost way to keep these cases out of court. In fact, not one of his lawsuits has gone all the way through trial. They always end up settling, usually for $50,000 to $75,000, though the demands can go as high as $200,000.

“That’s $75,000 of taxpayer money that’s going into ArrivalStar’s pockets without the validity of the patent ever being challenged,” said attorney Babak Siavoshy, who represents the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “If they make the settlement amount low enough, where the costs and benefits favor settling, then most municipalities are going to settle, and it costs them a lot of money, because the cost of litigation is a big stick.”

Siavoshy and EFF want the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to review Jones’ patents. EFF is looking for what’s known as “prior art”: examples of real-time vehicle tracking being discussed before Jones took out the patent, to show that he wasn’t the first one with the idea. Advocates also think they can prove that the systems Jones patented were too “obvious” or “non-novel” – that they were logical extensions of existing technology. Abstract ideas, with no technology or product attached, are not patentable.

ArrivalStar attorney Anthony Dowell contends that the patents are defensible and that Jones has the right to seek money from the agencies. “Just because an entity is funded with taxpayer dollars doesn’t give them the right to steal property,” said Dowell in a recent interview with ArsTechnica. “My client now owns 34 patents that are being infringed, and what else is he to do?”

The transit agencies I called couldn’t comment, since the case was pending. But the general counsel of the Monterey-Salinas Transit Corporation, David Laredo, said that they’re not challenging the validity of the patents. Their strategy is to assert that the vendor who sold the technology to the transit agency (Trapeze, a spinoff of Siemens) does hold a license from ArrivalStar, and if they don’t, that’s the vendor’s problem, not theirs.

To date, ArrivalStar has reached settlements with the city of Fairfax, Virginia; Boston’s MBTA; New York City’s MTA; Chicago’s Metra, and the Maryland Transit Authority. Suits are pending against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s PATH; King County, Washington; the Monterey-Salinas Transit Corporation; the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority; and Portland’s TriMet.

In the past, transit agencies may not have talked to each other about these lawsuits because Jones reportedly insists on a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement. He only brings a few suits at a time, using a divide-and-conquer strategy, taking care not to extract so much from these public entities that it would incentivize them to pursue litigation. The recent focus of Jones’ lawsuits on transit agencies has inspired Georgetown Climate Center and the American Public Transit Association to get these entities to communicate more and to develop a more cohesive strategy. So far, though, Jones’ strategy has been working.

But since Jones brought a suit against the U.S. Postal Service last November, the federal government is now affected. His suit charges the post office with violating his patents with its package tracking services.

Since U.S.P.S. is a federal agency, the Department of Justice is now involved, defending the post office against ArrivalStar’s claims by saying the patents are invalid and that no infringement occurred. Advocates and attorneys are trying to persuade the feds to broaden their interest in ArrivalStar from just U.S.P.S. to all the transit agencies that have been affected.

After all, the transit agencies, by and large, bought the GPS tracking devices with federal dollars, in pursuit of federal transportation goals. Publicly available real-time transit information — on smartphone apps, transit agency websites, or on screens in bus stops and train stations — makes transit a more attractive option, with the potential to reduce congestion and pollution. SAFETEA-LU, the transportation authorization the country is still (amazingly) working under, specifically requires states to identify ways to deliver real-time transit information to the public.

Georgetown Climate Center Director Vicki Arroyo told Streetsblog that she’s had some “early but hopeful discussions” with senior U.S. DOT officials.

“Earlier, some of the more junior people within the federal government were not keen to take this on, saying they didn’t have a dog in the fight — now they do,” she said, referring to the suit against the postal service. “We’re hoping they won’t just look at this as a one-off matter. There’s a much higher public stake here.”

  • Anonymous

    First of all, can’t a state or federal government take the patents through eminent domain? I’m not sure if there’s precedent in U.S. law for taking intellectual “property,” but there might not be precedent against it.

    Secondly, though the transit agencies may sign nondisclosure agreements, a lot of the information might be subject to FOIA.

  • lic lovr

    a truly fascinating albeit sad article

  • Erpolitics

    Seems to me the transit industry should have moved at the outset with a petition for governmental expropriation of all matters related to that silly patent.

  • Alexjon

    Trains have always signaled ahead to tell stations down the line where they are. That “tracking technology” is the telegraph. Or the telephone, which followed. Or e-mail. Or satellite. Before that we had signal towers that tracked anything from ships in narrow straits to enemy armies.

    That the idea of tracking arrivals and progress is novel only back to 1993 is mind-boggling.

  • Guest

    As far as identifying individual trains by route and time of arrival, San Francisco Bay Area BART was providing this at station electronic signs in the 1970s. Exactly what the Transit Authority has finally installed on the IRT (numbered) subway line platforms.  At least as far as railway use, there was clearly prior art and full use well before the patent was applied for.

    Even in the 1950’s the Brooklyn BMT had electric next-train information signs to tell if a train was going to Manhattan via Bridge or via Tunnel, and if Brooklyn bound trains were running via Brighton, West End, Culver, or Sea Beach Lines.  Not exactly electronic high tech, the BMT surely wanted to do more, but it was the best the available technology would allow for at the time.

    The MTA was in the process of modernizing their 100 year old electro-mechanical signal system in the 1980s with electronic signals that were capable of uniquely identifying each train.  Well before this patent.  They were also working on bus locators in the 80’s, but tall buildings block or scramble the GPS signals and the electronics of the time were not up to providing reliable tracking.  The tracking concept was there, the hardware was not quite ready.  I would be very surprised if there is anything in this Jones patent that would have resolved the technical problems of the 80’s. 

    There is no need for the feds to pay this troll’s patent fees or to buy him out;  that’s all eminent domain is – authority to force a sale, at fair market value, “if” there is a valid government need.  There is no need for this, because Jones’ patents should be invalidated.  They should never have been awarded.

  • Guest

    This underlines the sad state of america.  Why and how people sue others when they really are not being infringed upon nor harmed.  Not to say that they shouldn’t own what they rightfully own, but this is absurd on the same level that ADA complaints grant the plaintiff monetary damages rather just simply forcing compliance as it should be.  Willfully ignoring these orders should result in damages.

    But furthermore, people sue cities for everything, as if the city really had a part in you not holding on in a moving bus, or falling down a set of stairs, tripping on a curb or anything else.  It’s our built environment and due care needs to be taken anywhere you go.  And worse yet are those who ruin things for others.

    This is just one of those cases of greed. I hope the feds take on this matter and take it seriously that individuals cannot bully systems that people rely on.  Like it was said, it wasn’t the agencies that took the idea, but rather they purchased a product that was thought to be licensed.  And there lies the blame if any.  

    I vote for fair compensation. If it’s greed, I hope they get what they asked for…

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bike Share

    Don’t blame the patent troll for a broken system.

  • vhamer

    I hope the NYT picks up this article. This is the sort of thing we should all be talking about when we talk about ‘government waste.’

  • Anonymous

    I should just stop clicking on articles whining about patent trolls, because if I have to read one more blog comment from a reader who clearly hasn’t even looked at what a patent actually covers before opining, I’m going to start pulling my hair out.

  • Kevin

    It’s cases like this that make me wonder why ideals are considered “property” and should be patentable at all.

  • Kevin

    It’s cases like this that make me wonder why ideals are considered “property” and should be patentable at all.

  • Joe

    The nondisclosure agreement is what really gets me. If information were shared, Arrivalstar could eliminate the terrible “problem” they have with people infringing on their patents. Nondisclosure ensures the survival of the parasite. And lawyers, even the lawyers representing the victims, don’t care about the public interest.

  • Andrew

    Thank you for covering this.

    I believe Mr. Jones is the reason that New York’s new BusTime system gives waiting times in terms of bus stops rather than actual times.

  • Martin Catala

    I would read this article it offers an interesting perspective and an apparent remedy for transit agencies.  The author is the executive director of the Public Patent foundation. 

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-b-ravicher/patent-trolling-transportation_b_1428786.html

  • What about the Army? Surely they were using GPS to track vehicle locations before anyone else.

  • patent litigation

     Although I recognize the inefficiency problem that the patent troll business model creates within the economy, nevertheless the NPE model is profitable, effective, and a legal exercise of IP rights. The problem is a systemic one; when NPEs win, on average, two to three times the damage awards that practicing entities reap from patent litigation, you can’t blame them for suing as much as possible.  It seems to me that one of the best ways to combat the NPE problem is to disincentivize them by reducing their potential winnings from enforcement action. So far, however, only a few courts seem to have taken the reasonable-royalty approach.

  • Why doesn’t the IRS and FBI get involved?  ArrivalStar and Melvino are set up offshore to evade taxes.  I’m assuming they repatriate funds from offshore trust fund accounts via credit and debit cards from offshore banks?  Peter A. Siriannni, III is one of the principals of Palomar IP Corporation in Delray Beach, FL, along with Kelly Jones.  Sirianni has lived in Hermitage full time since May of 2011 but he probably files his taxes as a FL resident since FL has no income tax.  Jones lives in Vancouver, BC and probably terminated his US citizenship to help evade taxes.  Seems like the answer is to get the IRS involved.  Since these guys filed against the US Postal Service, I’m sure the feds will crush them eventually.

  • Eclipse IP LLC was assigned the same patents from Melvino Technologies and ArrivalStar.  Pete Sirianni is the patent troll that owns Eclipse IP LLC and is currently living at 2605 Old Hickory Court, Hermitage, PA  16148.  Prior art has been found for the patents.  Eclipse IP, LLC uses a residential address in Delray Beach, FL as the business address.  Eclipse IP will not pursue a lawsuit in court because they won’t prevail.  Pete Sirianni and his related patent trolls are simply looking for settlement out of court and will demand (extortion) royalties or licensing fees.  

  • JonesLaughlin

    How about the government also takes the buses themselves using eminent domain? And cars from GM/Ford using eminent domain? Heck the entire defense industry can be take using eminent domain? Why limit this argument to an inventor whom this rascal author disdainfully writes as “troll”. If this idiot author could have made the money inventing something, he would have. What I see is jealousy of people who think after the fact that the patent was simple or obvious.

  • If you’re a small business and someone from that address (2605 Old Hickory, Hermitage, PA) places an order on your website you will be targeted by this guy. Someone placed an order and had it billed and shipped to that address and then they used that order as evidence that we were infringing on their patent and asked for $120,000.00 to settle. Sarah. Veon. Sara. Eclipse IP LLC.

  • Leslie Scott

    Time management, time tracking, timely aspects are part and parcel of life. Without proper time management the life is gonna take a U turn.

    Lets take an example of an organization that plays with money, I mean to say that they are more into monetary transaction in the market. For them the time management matters a lot and also many other individuals and organizations depend on them. So time tracking should be a vital task for these kind of organizations so that others should not affect.

    Multiple companies are in the flow of deploying various tools and techniques to track employee time and that is a better way I would say. I have seen many time tracking tools in my life but the one that is the most trusted one is the quickbooks time tracking software. It has its value on the all time process. Even from individual point of view also that is quite applicable.

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