Triangle Transit escapes patent-lawsuit threat

Jan. 30, 2013 @ 06:42 PM

Triangle Transit recently escaped a potential court battle with a European company that was poised to claim a patent violation involving the software the agency uses to tell passengers when their bus will arrive.

Officials received a warning last year from ArrivalStar, a firm based in Luxembourg that owns a portfolio of patents for technology for real-time monitoring of a vehicle’s location, Triangle Transit General Counsel Wib Gulley said.

They responded by contacting their software vendor, Raleigh-based TransLoc Inc., which “said in essence, ‘We’ve got this,’ entered into months of negotiations and at the end of the day purchased a license for all of their users,” Gulley said.

Its move “resolves the issue for” Triangle Transit, he added. “For us there was no cost or expense, and we’re appreciative of TransLoc dealing with the problem.”

But while the threat of a lawsuit evaporated with the license payment to ArrivalStar, Triangle Transit leaders haven’t let the matter rest.

Instead, they’ve begun working with the American Public Transit Association, a lobbying group that’s helping transit agencies across the country fight ArrivalStar’s legal tactics.

Critics of the firm say it’s a “patent troll,” a derogatory term in the tech trade for companies that prefer to make money through litigation rather than by actually trying to make a product.

ArrivalStar acquired dozens of U.S. patents filed in the 1990s and 2000s by an inventor named Martin Kelly Jones.

He convinced federal patents inspectors that he’d come up with a unique way of monitoring the location of vehicles and goods and sending the information to interested parties.

Jones’ applications typically included a “block diagram” of the sort electrical engineers draw to show how the various systems of a piece of technology might work together, along with flow charts that computer programmers similarly use to outline the basic logic of their creations.

But they didn’t include actual circuit diagrams or programming code, the stuff that actually converts an idea into a working piece of technology.

ArrivalStar’s critics contend it was obvious to a great many people in the 1990s and 2000s that GPS, radios and computer chips could be molded into a system that would tell people where a vehicle, package or other item of interest is at any given time.

Jones’ patents indeed acknowledge dozens of precedents for the idea, amongst patents filed by other inventors and major companies like Motorola and General Motors.

His variant proposed supplying location notices by phone, perhaps using a special ringtone the person on the other end of the line wouldn’t even have to answer to gleen information from.

TransLoc’s system – used most often by university-run bus systems – uses mobile-phone mapping applications to show transit riders where buses are. It will relay a text message with arrival-time information to a would-be rider’s phone, on request.

TransLoc’s system also is patented, its paperwork citing a number of Jones’ patents as precedent for its idea.

ArrivalStar’s tactics have attracted notice for its lawyers’ recent habit of going after public transit agencies. It’s targeted providers in Boston, New York City, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, among others.

Media reports indicate ArrivalStar settles for relatively low-dollar license fees, small enough to deter targets from choosing to fight.

A 2012 report by Ars Technica, a Web-based news outlet that covers the tech industry, said Seattle’s transit agency settled with the firm for $80,000.

Boston’s transit agency also opted to settle a lawsuit against it, though not before its lawyers filed a dismissal motion calling ArrivalStars’ tactics “unseemly and inimical to the fundamental purpose” of U.S. patent laws.

“Shakedowns such as this one should be outlawed,” lawyers said for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Gulley couldn’t say how much TransLoc paid for its license. The company’s founder, N.C. State University computer science graduate and former IBM employee Josh Whiton, couldn’t be reached for comment.