Ed. Note: I consider Rod Rakic as a friend responsible for a number of things that have changed my life, not all for the good my wife sometimes says. Because of our first lunch together a few years ago, Rod turned me into an iPhone and later an Apple devote’. Because of him, my life has expanded exponentially on Twitter. And after hanging around with him at AirVenture a few times, I became the proud owner of an orange tee-shirt with a very strange guy named Ace – his MyTransponder alter-ego – embalzoned across the front.
But Rod’s also devoted to aviation like almost no one I’ve met in recent years. With that, I present to you his view on the chaos over the FlightPrep lawsuit.
Rob Mark, editor
Is FlightPrep Evil or Just Wrong?
By Rod Rakic, Founder, myTransponder.com
All this has happened before. All this will happen again.” - Pythia
Patent litigation stifled innovation during aviation’s infancy, and it seems to be happening again. Aviators have been rallying with torches and pitchforks because FlightPrep, ignoring lessons learned long ago, is pursuing licensing fees for online flight planning. I don’t have a dog in this hunt, so let’s look at those lessons via Wikipedia:
“Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright Brothers were the first to invent [three-axis] aircraft controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible…. Their U.S. patent 821,393 claims the invention of a system of aerodynamic control that manipulates a flying machine’s surfaces.”
Glenn Curtiss and others attempted to circumvent the patent’s wing-warping lateral control with ailerons. After June Bug flew on July 4, 1908, the Wrights warned Curtiss to not infringe their patent by profiting from flying or selling aileron aircraft. Refusing to pay license fees, Curtiss sold one to the Aeronautic Society of New York in 1909.
The Wrights sued. They invested years in numerous such suits. This stifled not only the improvement of the Wright designs, but other US designs as well. By 1911 they all were considered inferior to European creations, which is why Americans flew French and British aircraft in World War I.
Another Patent War
After seven applications were declined, FlightPrep was granted U.S. Patent 7,640,098 in December 2009 for the “process of generating travel plans on the Internet.” (Didn’t MapQuest start doing that back in 1996?)
FlightPrep’s first application was broad, but the patent it received is narrow. Don’t think that FlightPrep was granted a general patent for the invention of Any sort of Flight Planning using computers. They were granted a patent for one particular way of cooking map data on a server and rendering it with route data on a client machine. I don’t buy the patentability of what FlightPrep does. Drawing a line on a chart is not new, even if you’re doing it on the Internet.
Like the Wrights, FlightPrep has chosen to litigate instead of innovate. Kudos to RunwayFinder for standing up to FlightPrep. Same goes for AOPA, Jeppesen, FlightAware, NavMonster, and Coradine Aviation.
Ignoring the Streisand Effect, FlightPrep has deleted any negative comments about its business practices from its Facebook page and disabled comments to any post related to the patent issue on its blog.
That FlightPrep first went after smaller fish like RunwayFinder, makes perfect sense. These test cases help FlightPrep’s legal beagles find potential weaknesses in their arguments, and create precedents for others agreeing to license the ideas. (SkyVector, I’m looking at you.) This sets the stage for FlightPrep to target companies with real revenue at stake such as Jeppesen, AOPA and ForeFlight via the courts next.
No incremental revenue stream derived from gaming the patent system is worth damaging our industry. Yet here we are, suffering the same silliness that retarded the infant US aviation industry a century ago. The aviation industry needs to be building better tools, not chasing after each other with lawyers.
Rod Rakic is based in Chicago, holds a commercial pilot certificate, serves with the Civil Air Patrol, and is the founder of myTransponder, inc. which is dedicated to making aviation more social by building tools such as myTransponder.com, a social networking site for pilots and the aviation community.