APTA Goes After Transit-Harassing Patent Troll

For years, transit agencies and other companies have been harassed by a patent troll seeking to extort them for “settlements” when they use real-time vehicle tracking technologies. ArrivalStar and Melvino Technologies, offshore firms led by one Martin Kelly Jones, claim to hold the rights to those ideas.

If your bus stop has a sign like this, your transit agency may be in the sights of patent troll Martin Kelly Jones -- the target of a new lawsuit by the association that represents transit agencies. Photo: U.S. DOT

Jones has been picking off agencies one by one and demanding settlement claims, usually on the order of $50,000  to $75,000 — just low enough to make it worth agencies’ while to settle rather than litigate. At least 11 agencies have paid Jones so they can use technologies that are a great benefit to transit riders.

The settlements often impose gag orders to stop transit agencies from talking to each other about his lawsuits, making it hard for them to band together to take Jones down.

But they’re beginning to do just that. The American Public Transportation Association, which represents transit agencies across the country, filed a federal lawsuit yesterday, seeking to halt ArrivalStar and Melvino Technologies’ “frivolous patent infringement claims against public transit systems.” According to a press release APTA sent out this morning:

APTA, which is being represented by the Public Patent Foundation, is asking the United States District Court, Southern District of New York, to declare that its public transportation system members cannot be sued for patent infringement by ArrivalStar. The lawsuit states that ArrivalStar’s patents are invalid and unenforceable and that the claims cover ineligible subject matter. In addition, the lawsuit asserts that the 11th amendment prohibits state and regional entities from being subject to such suits.

“Our public transit systems have been improving the customer experience by providing real-time schedule and travel information to riders,” said James LaRusch, APTA Chief Counsel. “These systems, which are operating under severe financial constraints, are being saddled with these outrageous harassment claims that are a waste of time and money. This must be stopped.”

The anti-trolling movement is picking up steam. President Obama issued several executive orders this month aiming to root out patent trolls in order “to protect innovators from frivolous litigation.” The Federal Trade Commission announced last week that it’s planning to launch an investigation into the practices of “patent assertion entities” that sue governmental agencies, including transit systems, over questionable claims of patent infringement. Yesterday, as APTA was filing its lawsuit, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), founder of the Congressional Public Transportation Caucus and a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, sent a letter to the FTC chair urging her to follow through on the promise to investigate.

All of these actions could help bolster APTA’s case. Another excellent arrow in the organization’s quiver is all the “prior art” that could overturn Jones’ patents. The Electronic Frontier Foundation set out last year to discover instances of the vehicle-tracking technologies’ existence before Jones ever applied for a patent on them. This “prior art” could invalidate the patents, because you can’t patent something that’s already in use. And EFF has found more than 30 examples of prior art, showing that Jones never should have gotten his patents in the first place — and surely has no right to claim “a 20-year monopoly.”