Is FlightPrep Evil, or Just Wrong?

By Robert Mark on January 5th, 2011

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

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Is FlightPrep Evil or Just Wrong?

By Rod Rakic, Founder, myTransponder.com

All this has happened before. All this will happen again.” - Pythia

rod 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

Flight Prep - jetwhine 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.

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17 Responses to “Is FlightPrep Evil, or Just Wrong?”

  1. FlyingDan Says:

    I think they’re just trying to make a buck and this is the easiest way for them to cash in on their “invention.”

  2. Brad Says:

    Pennywise and pound foolish. It would have been better for their business to simply innovate and not try to corner the market, regardless of the validity of the patent. They’ve certainly managed through their horrible public relations to portray themselves as the bad guys.

  3. Brian Says:

    It’s a pretty disturbing move on their part. I’ve got the FlightPrep software and really like it. Since I already own it, I’ll keep using it. I don’t think I’ll renew my chart subscriptions with them though. I don’t want to encourage the type of behaviour they’re engaging in. I find it very damaging to an already quite fragile industry. On the chart side, after being let down like this by a software vendor, I may very well just go back to paper as it’s more reliable anyways.

  4. Paul Says:

    The answer is Flightprep is EVIL.

    Read where Flightprep threatened bodily harm to Aero-News staff becuase of news coverage.
    http://www.aero-news.net/news/genav.cfm?ContentBlockID=9895D80B-2471-4710-BAC5-A87C37210CE7&Dynamic=1

  5. Toriafly Says:

    Maybe I’m stuck in the 1950’s (however, I didn’t live during that time, maybe in a past life) but I think the cornerstone of a good business is providing great customer service and serving the customer needs, not their own.

    Especially in a time where general aviation in struggling and needs to stick together, companies should be working to be innovative and to appeal to the customer. These patent cases are definitely a turn off and aren’t serving the greater good of aviation. If I were to purchase such software, I vote for the little guy trying to make it; the one not being greedy.

    Great write up, bringing up the patent lawsuits of the Wright Brothers shows that history certainly can repeat itself and such greed is not rewarded.

  6. Jason Says:

    Frame & print what Toriafly said.

    It’s a shame to have watched this unfold the way it did. General Aviation has enough enemies outside of it’s own ranks. I’d say, good luck dragging Jeppesen to court on this or AOPA. Going after the little guys is simple and easy, but with Jeppesen… I’d buckle up tight and get the goggles straightened out. It’s going to be a rough ride.

  7. Rodney Hall Says:

    I looked at Flightpreps facebook page and a lot of comments seem to be missing. For instance a a post will say 18 comments but when you expand it only 4 or 5 comments show up some obviously referring to missing comments. There is also no way to leave a comment now.

  8. Rob Mark Says:

    If FlightPrep had been working on all of this behind the scenes it might make more sense I guess.

    But why in the world a company would want to air all this dirty laundry in public is simply beyond me, not to mention that if they WERE planning on going after AOPA or Jeppensen, those two organizations have sort of had a bit of a heads up on this all coming.

    Hello FlightPrep. I think they might have already planned on how they’re going to handle whatever you’re planning on throwing at them.

    Maybe Rod has the wrong title. This should have read, “Is FlightPrep Evil or Just Stupid?”

  9. Bob N73RZ Says:

    While I am against overly-broad patents in general (Amazon tried to patent one-click shopping, NTP almost had BlackBerry email shut down over a patent they own for “email over mobiles”) there really is not enough info here to see what FlightPrep’s argument really is. Are they really trying to enforce a patent on displaying charts electronically, or something more technical? If they developed a method for scanning, referencing and mapping on electronic charts, perhaps they do deserve to make money on that effort. If you invested lots of your time and energy in a project you would want to profit from it as well. But if they are trying to enforce a patent on technology they had no hand in developing, that is wrong.

  10. Rod Rakic Says:

    Thanks all for the comments you’ve taken the time to post here. I appreciate everyone contributing to the conversation.

    Patents should be used as a defensive weapon, not as an offensive weapon as FlightPrep has.

    AeroPlanner.com has been operational since July of the year 2000. (I checked.) But FlightPrep filed their patent in 2001. There is nothing stopping FlightPrep from using their patent to try and extort money out of AeroPlanner.

    It could cost AeroPlanner (who, by-the-way, powers the EAA’s flight planning tool) typically $3-$5 Million to defend themselves in court against FlightPrep. So what is AeroPlanner supposed to do when FlightPrep shakes them down for a licensing fee of a few thousand dollars a month maybe? Pay FlightPrep the protection money? Or should they duke it out in court on manner of principle?

    It’s like getting mugged in a meadow.

  11. Matt Says:

    If one were to take the “information” presented here and other blogs at face value, the loathing for Flightprep is quite understandable. However, much of this” information” just is not correct:
    “,,, Flightprep patent fails numerous tests such as prior art AeroPlanner.”
    While true, Aero Planner was active 2 years before the initial application, but, a big BUT, it was then and may still display only “static fixed sized” maps – lacking any interactivity, waypoints, rubber band routing and layering as disclosed in the patent.
    While it is entirely possible that there is prior art, not a single example of prior art has yet been cited (35 U.S.C. 102(a) and (b)). Just because one says there is “prior art” with certain moral conviction, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Lots of art today, but what matters is the word “prior” which goes back to 2001.
    “…Many claims in the patent were not in place in 2001 but developed during the subsequent time period, when others had those features in place…A clear misuse of the patent system. Ethical, hardly.”
    This conclusion is just patently wrong (pun not intended). Reading the file wrapper (330) pages reveals that the specifications (35 U.S.C. 112) NEVER changed – if they did, the patent would have been rejected because of new matter. What did change were the claims – in 99.9% in all patents they always do. The claims must always be based on the specifications. In this case the claims where actually narrowed (made weaker). This is not as “a clear misuse of the patent system”. Most all patents follow the process.
    Finally, here is an opportunity to not pass judgment on FP, but to give them some advice. For this exercise, assume you are the inventor:
    1. You invested the better part of nine years and a ton of money inventing and patenting your work. Never mind, for sake of argument, that some believe the invention is not valid because of prior art or obviousness – whatever. This question will be answered by folks much smarter than I.
    2. Let’s assume that the only wise action an inventor can take is write a patent notification letter to a potential infringer/licensee (like FP did) and offer to enter into discussions. The potential infringer/licensee ignores it. http://images.flightprep.com/MythVsFact/NotificationLetter.pdf
    3. You send another notification letter to the potential infringer/licensee and offer to enter into discussions again (like FP did) – also ignored by the potential infringer/licensee.
    4. Now assume that any further communications with a potential infringer/licensee may result in getting sued for a “Declarative Judgment” action (DJ). This is the kind of suit a party may bring to settle a potential controversy in Federal Court in the infringer/licensee’s jurisdiction – very expensive to defend by the inventor.
    5. Assume that unless the invention is protected through some kind of license or some other consideration, it is essentially abandoned and becomes worthless.
    6. Assume that no business in their right mind would negotiate with any third party over anything in public and potentially release sensitive proprietary info such as financials and competitive proprietary data.
    Ok, the rubber hit the road, your move – you are the inventor, here are your choices:
    1. Call, email, visit potential infringer/licensee and begin negotiations without an NDA – risk exposing sensitive business data to the rest of the world – risk getting sued (a DJ action).
    2. Sue to get potential infringer/licensee to respond – risk to be seen as a bully and infuriate the aviation community for all the reasons (right or wrong) discussed on these blogs.
    3. Do something else? I guess all the furious pilots who have been wronged by FP would now suggest – get rid of the lawyers, abandon the invention, kiss your investment good bye and apologize to the aviation community for your misdeeds.
    Pick one – it’s not easy.
    Of course the questions are rhetorical, you are not the inventor and don’t have to make any choices – its much easier for us to criticize FP and believe they are the big bully and punish them for making a choice, bad as it may appear.
    Maybe it just boils down to this: We are angry because we can’t freeload anymore, and are upset that someone had the nerve and foresight to protect and actually patent their invention back in 2001. We might believe – rightly or wrongly – is an obvious invention or no invention at all. So now we are resentful and reduced to disgust and choose to punish the inventors based on at best, dubious information. I for one will wait until the truth is revealed before passing any judgment to destroy any small struggling aviation business.
    Who would have predicted that protecting ones invention would make FP the most hated business in aviation – I bet FP didn’t.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Matt,

    You copied your response very well from the General Aviation News website published there by Mike and others.

  13. Brent Says:

    Matt

    You make good points, but I think there are some fundamental differences in the way we come at this.

    1) I believe the FlightPrep patent to be obvious and a natural occurrence as compared to what we have done on paper for years, and in reference to the many online mapping applications that were not aviation specific. SO, I don’t necessarily believe there is an invention here at all.

    2) Tactics – If FlightPrep sues somebody next week with deeper pockets, I will shut up. That is not, and will not be the case however because there approach is to pick off the companies that can least afford to mount a defense. I find this tactic reprehensible, and the main basis for my opposition to FlightPrep.

    FlightPrep argues that they had no alternative, but to sue RunwayFinder since they would not respond.

    Jeppesen responded by telling FlightPrep to go pound sand. That leaves FlightPrep with the same limited options that they say caused them to sue RunwayFinder.

    Where is the suit?

    3. You claim that the source of all of this ire is because we can’t “Free Load”. I cannot disagree more.

    The aviation community consists of people who are fiercely loyal to services they value. Not all of which are free.

    ForeFlight is an example that comes immediately to mind. It is not free, but has proven itself through innovation, serving the customer, and contributing to the aviation community as a whole.

    If there were some sort of legal attack on ForeFlight, where the same sort of tactics were used. You would see a similar response from the community as we would rise up to vote with our dollars.

    I strongly believe in Capitalism, so I put my dollars to work in the marketplace where I see value. In the case of FlightPrep/RunwayFinder, the boycott was the perfect opportunity to do so. Since I was not a FlightPrep customer, I voted by sending an equivalent amount to the RunwayFinder defense fund.

    I will also exercise my options to tell everyone who will listen about the way FlightPrep chooses to operate their business. That includes Facebook, EAA Chapter Newsletter, EAA Chapter Website, Online Forums, etc.

  14. Rob Mark Says:

    And perhaps Matt, you wouldn’t mind sharing – or any of you actually – about the reported media hit on the Jim Campbell at ANN.

    Did Jim make all that up about the threats to back off on the reporting of anything related to FlightPrep?

    Why would he do that?

    I’m no attorney so I can’t comment on the legalities of argument you present (BTW, did you really copy that from GA News?), but something about the business tactics reported on FligtPrep tell me there’s more to this than a company simply loosing control of its invention.

  15. Brent Says:

    When I study this case, and educate myself on patent law (I am not an attorney). I keep coming back to the requirement that an application be “Non-Obvious”

    If you look at the rules used to determine this (WikiPedia: Graham Factors) you will see the following factors.
    1. the scope and content of the prior art;
    2. the level of ordinary skill in the art;
    3. the differences between the claimed invention and the prior art; and
    4. objective evidence of nonobviousness.

    I contend that FlightPrep fails on all tests.

    I also take exception to FlightPrep’s Myth vs “Fact” where they contend that “only a competent patent attorney can make a legal opinion as to whether a product does or does not infringe on a particular patent”

    I say Bull. This is a lawyer saying that only a lawyer can understand the technology underlying the patent.

    More evidence that FlightPrep sees the legal system as a way to line their own pockets.

    I would prefer to see companies innovate and contribute to the community.

  16. Darrell Says:

    A marriage of existing techniques, technology, and method, consolidated for ease of use has been the basis of many patent applications. They’re usually, just as this company’s application, denied. This patent was re-worked in 2005, and incorporated a fraction of information from 2001 in order to backdate. Since the software offers no new physical component, it should not have been awarded a patent, but rather a copyright. Their “years of innovation” where merely years of integration with no new language (such as the invention of Java by filmmakers) and years of awaiting someone else hardware to come along and support what they could rightfully claim a copyright to based on presentation, but no more invented anything than Stephen Spielberg invented sharks, boats, flying saucers, or anything else used in one of his movies.

    A patent attorney does not make money if he cannot find someone to extort. Motivations are clear when you see that in spite of their statement that they were left with no choice but to sue Runway Finder, they chose not to sue Jeppesen. I guess we dare them, don’t we?

  17. Brent Says:

    If they don’t apply their reasoning equally to all companies, then they are invalid reasons.

    Using Logic.

    if I say

    A did B so I must do C

    I am claiming that Action B made be do C. It had nothing to do with A.

    Similarly, when
    D does B and I don’t do C

    I have invalidated my claim in the first case.

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