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: ##http://ntl.bts.gov/lib/jpodocs/repts_te/13845.html##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.”

27 thoughts on APTA Goes After Transit-Harassing Patent Troll

  1. I don’t doubt that this particular patent troll may be a frivolous hurdle to better transit and their particular patent may be invalidated by a legitimate court proceeding, however, the general commentary on patent trolls is outside of this blog’s expertise and I think it does a disservice to StreetsBlog’s stated policy goals by dismissing and deride a broad group of people/businesses (patent trolls) who inherently are neither for or against those goals.
    There can be a great policy debate on the pros and cons of patent trolls, I don’t think that this blog needs to take a position.

  2. You don’t have to be a patent lawyer to understand that frivolous patent litigation is, in general, a bad thing.

  3. Well except for all of the inventions they create and disseminate to the public domain through their patent so that others can learn from what they invented. The term patent troll has a negative connotation and they do a lot of negative things like lock up innovation from public use but that is a policy debate Streetsblog doesn’t need to take a side of.

  4. I see your point, but this blog by its very nature will occasionally touch on issues that are outside its area of specialization. Sometimes there will be issues of electoral politics, and sometimes there will be issues of the ease or difficulty of various types of film editing (as in Los Angeles recently, with the film industry complaining about a green bike lane), and sometimes there will be others, like patent law. I think it’s fair for the blog to comment on these issues as they are relevant to transit, though you’re probably right that a little bit more of a disclaimer might be warranted.

  5. Frivolous litigation is a bad thing, absolutely. Patent lawsuits aren’t per se frivolous like they’re generally portrayed these days by lay media who don’t know what they’re talking about. If EFF and PubPat can get the patents in question invalidated, great, any way transit agencies can save money is appreciated. Unless and until they do, though, those patents are presumed to be valid and their holders are well within their rights to enforce them.

  6. Again, there are no “sides” to this issue. By definition, a patent troll is gaming the system, not contributing to it.

    If someone is creating things and adding them to the public domain, they do not have a patent. Intellectual property is the OPPOSITE of public domain.

  7. I don’t know about New York, but I do know that the MBTA’s deployment of vehicle tracking was delayed for months because of that creep, and no doubt that applies to many transit agencies around the country. What’s more, as transit agencies try more innovations like this one, they will no doubt have run ins with other trolls.

  8. The problem here is that our broken patent system allows people like Mr. Jones to game it to their own advantage. Often, you can get a brand new patent on something very similar to other things already previously patented. The drug companies do it all the time. They make a drug which is nearly identical to other drugs in the same family, but change one minor thing, and they get a patent for it. This defeats the purpose of the patent system, which is to reward and foster innovation. It’s an exaggeration but not much of one to say what is happening here is equivalent to someone inventing the spoked bicycle wheel and getting a patent for it, then someone else comes along and gets a patent on the same type of wheel, except it has two more spokes.

    The patent office needs to stop awarding patents for things which are largely evolutionary changes of inventions which already exist (I believe the proper term is “derivatives”). Those may be covered under the IP of a company making them, but they certainly don’t merit patents. Here we have a bunch of patents awarded for essentially the same thing prior to when Mr. Jones obtained his patent. He never should have been awarded a patent in the first place, much less been able to extort money from transit companies because of it. I hope this goes to court, and he must return his ill-gotten gains with interest.

  9. So, should the blog also stop commenting on the health benefits of biking, since none of them are doctors?

  10. The idea of a patent troll is that they claim an idea for themselves and squat on it until someone else needs to use the idea. If he were serious with his patent, he’d be catering to what these transit agencies need and actually produce something of value. That’s fine. He’s doing the opposite by not offering any such technologies and suing at every turn. That’s the troll part, this is the problem.

    People that register patents often do so because they intend to create their ideas and want to protect them. Yes, these aren’t trolls, these are just people doing business and the people you and I expect just want to protect their ideas. A troll is not this.

    Rather this guy Jones is troll because he isn’t actively participating in producing anything that revolves around the said patent.

    It harms the system because people are trying to implement this idea NOW. We shouldn’t be shackled from using a good idea just because someone thinks they’re the only one in the world that can think of it. He’s gaming it by extorting companies that he knows will need this idea.

    The other problem here is that this particular patent idea is a natural extension of wait times for train platforms. Transit agencies can figure it out independent of this guy, and that’s what many have been doing until he decides to muck up their plans and drop the lawsuit. If it can be done this easily, there is no reason this guy needs a patent, yet he hogs it like it’s a special thing just to make quick cash because no one wants to put the money or effort into arguing.

    This is the problem with patent trolls, and I feel like you were confusing them with actual people that try to sell products off their patents. These trolls don’t do that and are not a good thing at all.

  11. This is what sidecar, lyft and uber will be doing once they have been ruled illegal. They’ll have to pay off those investors somehow!

  12. The fact that the holders may be within their legal rights to enforce them is an indictment, not a validation, of the patent system status quo.

  13. This view is based on the preconceived notion that they SHOULDN’T have a right to enforce their patents.

  14. A lawful patent holder shouldn’t be able to enforce their patents? Why? Because the unlicensed user of the patented technology happens to be a public entity? That’s a bit odd, no?

  15. The problem here isn’t patent holders enforcing their patents. Rather, it’s awarding patents for things which are only marginally different from other things which were thought of years, or decades, earlier.

    A second problem is awarding patents which then aren’t used. I think patents should be declared invalid if they’re not used commercially within a certain period of time (say 5 years). Mr. Jones never produced a product which used any of his patents. If he did, then nobody would be complaining when he enforced his patents. Getting a patent, then sitting on it just to sue others who make products which are similar is NOT how the patent system should work.

  16. As stated in the article, many of the patent trolls (defined here as a business which is in the business of collecting patents to use only in litigation and threats of litigation) aren’t showing up in a courtroom, they are threatening businesses and public agencies with litigation and offering a private settlement priced to avoid litigation by being under the estimated cost of litigation to the target. The article even cites 11 agencies which have paid.

  17. They SHOULDN’T have the right to enforce patents which are legally invalid, should never have issued in the first place, which they didn’t invent, and which existed before they filed.

    There’s a major problem with junk patents, particularly in the arena of software (no software is ever patentable, legally, since it’s pure math and math isn’t patentable… but the courts have gone nuts allowing junk patents for the last couple of decades).

  18. They generally use what you might call “frivolous patents” — patents which are invalid and should never have issued, often invalid for a dozen or more different reasons. This is something I have studied.

  19. In the software arena, which is where Mr. Jones’s fake patent was, the patents are actually even more bogus than “a bicycle wheel with two extra spokes”. There have been dozens of essays written on how utterly wrong and invalid patents like Mr. Jones’s are, on many different levels.

    The typical patent is “Do the obvious, on a computer.” So I would expect (without reading it) that this patent patents something like “Check the GPS tracking signal coming from the bus, and report it.”

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