TriMet real-time arrival sign. Photo by sfcityscape on Flickr.

Any transit agencies around the nation who haven’t yet gotten sued by patent troll ArrivalStar might be in luck. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has found prior art which may prove the patent invalid, and has asked the US Patent and Trademark Office to reexamine the patent.

The owner of the patent controls two offshore firms, ArrivalStar and Melvino Technologies, whose sole business is to file lawsuits against transit agencies, airlines, department stores, and anyone else who makes or uses a product that tracks vehicles in real time. Meanwhile, they don’t actually make any products that track vehicles.

ArrivalStar and Melvino have sued multiple Northern Virginia governments and transit agencies, the Maryland Transit Administration, the MBTA, the Port Authority of NY and NJ, Chicago’s Metra, Portland’s TriMet, Seattle’s King County, Albuquerque, Cleveland, DFW Airport, Macy’s, Ford, Gymboree, United Airlines, and many more for a total of over 100 lawsuits.

Agencies have settled for tens of thousands of dollars of public money to avoid spending even more to fight the lawsuit and try to invalidate the patent.

It’s unclear whether anyone can, or should be able to, patent such a broad concept as tracking vehicles with computers. It’s not some kind of a unique idea that only came from years of painstaking research, which nobody else thought of or would have. However, that’s not exactly the standard for patents under current law, and the patent office often ends up granting unreasonably broad patents.

You can’t patent something if someone already invented it and published about it, and that’s what EFF alleges. They found a US Department of Transportation technical report from 1992 that describes just the kind of vehicle tracking in the patent. News articles talk about the Nextbus company’s product, which also does this, from 1996. Yet the patent office granted Patent #7,030,781 in 1999 2006, but with a “priority date,” the date before which prior art is relevant, of 1999 or 1993.

Some patents play a valuable role in ensuring inventors get some compensation for their inventions, and rightly so. They are especially important in fields that require expensive R&D, such as pharmaceuticals. However, for software and business methods in particular, a great number of patents go to whoever first files for a fairly broad idea, like streaming audio on the Internet, multi-player games, looking up bar codes in a database, purchasing things from inside apps, or having users send messages to other users of a website.

Coupled with a 17-year patent term that is far longer than the lifecycle of products in technology, these kinds of patents have done a lot of damage to innovation, by making it very expensive for anyone to develop a new product from scratch. They cost transit agencies money and can prevent transit riders from having the best information.

EFF has been pushing to reform a broken patent system. You can lend your voice at Defend Innovation and become an EFF member (I have been one for many years now). It’ll help transit riders and many, many more people who benefit from innovative technology.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.