Boston Transit Authority Sued For Patent Infringement… For Letting You Know Your Train Is Running Late

from the your-patent-system-is-running-late dept

Brad Feld points us to the latest in a long line of ridiculous patent lawsuits. Apparently, two foreign companies that have filed “dozens” of similar lawsuits in the last few years are now suing the MBTA (Boston’s transit service) for patent infringement for having a system that sends email/text alerts if a train is running late. The two patents in question (6,317,060 and 7,030,781) highlight why so many people think the patent system is screwed up. There is nothing in creating a system to alert users that their train is late that is all that complicated. If you took just about any group of semi-competent engineers and put them in a room and described the issue, they’d come up with similar solutions. There is no reason to justify giving a patent to such an “invention.” All it serves to do is actively stifle the use of technology.

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Companies: mbta

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Comments on “Boston Transit Authority Sued For Patent Infringement… For Letting You Know Your Train Is Running Late”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: WTF

An “administration” is a self-contained, perpetual motion machine. Once you create one, they will “administrate” the fuck out of everything. It doesn’t matter what it is, who or what purpose it serves, or even whether it is relevant… just as long as they are “administrating”.

BearGriz72 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: WTF

An “administration” is a self-contained, perpetual motion machine. Once you create one, they will “administrate” the fuck out of everything. It doesn’t matter what it is, who or what purpose it serves, or even whether it is relevant… just as long as they are “administrating”.

I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair! I am Bookmarking this comment to refer back to in the future.

Anonymous Coward says:

what is obvious today might not have been obvious or easily done 7 to 10 years ago. the system is pretty detailed including locator systems, processing steps, and communication steps. i am sure at the time it was a new idea. you cannot use todays measurement to decide if something was unique 10 years ago when this was filed.

Kilroy says:

Re: Re:

what is obvious today (the wheel) might not have been obvious or easily done 7 to 10 (or more) years ago. The system is pretty detailed including locator systems (a round side), processing steps (a place for an axel), and communication steps (and a flat side). I am sure at the time it was a new idea (who’d have thought it … and that whole idea of having the round edge in contact with the ground … freakin’ genius). You cannot use today’s measurement to decide if something was unique 10 (or more) years ago when this was filed. (I know that patents of this kind only make life better for all mankind. After all without a system like this we’d have to go to the stop to determine if the train was on time … and since you need to be there to catch the train … that might be a good idea too. Maybe I should patent that )

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

and somehow you are the only one capable of using yesterdays standards to determine the validity of a patent? Please.

The idea was obvious then and even if it wasn’t I’d much rather we have a system that allows me the freedom to independently come up with the idea and implement it than to have a broken system that requires me to worry about who has a patent on what before implementing an idea I independently came up with.

and you are also assuming that the patent holder is the only one who could have possibly came up with such an idea at the time or shortly thereafter and that every idea requires a patent for someone to come up with at the time that the patent was issued and that just because no one has a patent on an idea it must mean that no one can come up with it or has come up with it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

(and to continue)

and this is what’s wrong with our patent system. Things are often easier said than done. It’s usually easier to come up with an idea and draw it out than to actually implement it and so while the idea may have been obvious at the time the patent holder got a patent on it, it still takes a while for others to implement.

But what does the patent holder do? He simply talks about the idea, writes it down, and, tada, he has a monopoly. Those who actually spend the time to implement an idea, instead of wasting time getting a patent on it, get punished. Yes, someone may have gotten a patent before the idea was implemented by others but that’s only because it takes longer to implement an idea than to simply think of the idea and patent on it, it’s not because no one else simply thought of the idea before this patent holder did. But we have a system that rewards those who “say” and punishes those that actually “do”.

Nick Coghlan (profile) says:


“Unique” is not the criteria. The requirement is that the item being patented not be obvious to someone skilled in the state of the art.

There will generally be someone who is “first” even for obvious things, simply because they were the ones who encountered the problem that the solution solves first. However, for a lot of things in engineering, just defining the problem clearly enough will often let the solution fall into your lap.

For example, I found out this week that there is probably some kind of patent on storing a directed acyclic graph in an SQL database. I didn’t read it because I don’t really want to know, but the search where that URL came up was one I conducted *after* solving the problem just to check if I had missed anything obvious when it came to one specific issue that makes the solution rather untidy. This is a pretty heavily constrained problem due to the nature of SQL and the data structure being recorded, so unsurprisingly the articles I found all documented pretty much the same approach I had already taken. I’d be very surprised if the patent said anything different (although, as noted, I have no intention of reading it to find out).

Nick Coghlan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Obviousness

Decent article on the topic:

(The “specific issue” I mentioned is exactly the one that article spends a lot of time talking about – SQL can’t really handle recursive data structures so you need to do a procedural traversal of the graph either at lookup time or whenever the data is modified)

Googling “sql directed acyclic graph” brings up quite a few interesting hits (it’s how I found the article above).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Obviousness

except in this case the process was at the time less than obvious. gps wasnt cheap or widespread, data radios were expensive, software to track locations rare if not nonexistant, the comparative processing not easy, direct communication to users was not obvious or common, and so on. again what is obvious today may not have been obvious at that point. it isnt fair to use todays experience to judge an older idea.

Ryan says:

Re: Re: Obviousness

gps wasnt cheap or widespread, data radios were expensive, software to track locations rare if not nonexistant, the comparative processing not easy

All of which is completely irrelevant in evaluating obviousness, even if we grant your hyperbole.

direct communication to users was not obvious or common

Really? Direct…communication…was not obvious?

And the patents describe a general system that is not remotely detailed: a mechanism for determining where trains are in their route, a mechanism for comparing this against the schedule, and a mechanism for notifying passengers that the train is behind schedule. That’s it. That’s as specific as it gets. And you say this was non-obvious in 2001? I don’t recall society as a whole being mentally retarded at that time…

:) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Obviousness

The Romans did use lanterns to transmit data and they notified others of incoming armies and messengers, but only worked at night for all I know.

The telegraph was used to notify further stations that a train would be late this in the 1800’s

The Romans had a cart that had an odometer in it so they could charge others LoL
A photo of a working roman cart can be seen here.

Dyonisious should be called the father of the machine gun.

:) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Obviousness

The Antikythera was the first lunar clock or planetary clock in the world an analogic computer that predicted eclipses. Which people probably used to tell others of things to come.

People have been alerting others and creating things to do that for a long time now, if that is not an obvious invention I don’t know what qualifies then. Notifications systems are obvious.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Obviousness

“And the patents describe a general system that is not remotely detailed”

and this is the case for most patents. IP maximists try to claim, “but patents are useful, they give you a detailed analysis on everything” but they provide absolutely ZERO evidence to support their hypothesis. All of the evidence suggests the opposite and the incentive certainly is not to give detail but to be as general as possible so as to cover as many specific implementations of a general idea.

Alex (profile) says:

Re: Re: Obviousness

But the obviousness of the (abstract) process of detecting late-running trains bears no relationship to the cost or ubiquity of the hardware that is used to implement it. The patent is on the abstract process, which can be devised and documented with or without any implementation in hardware. Therefore, your argument is irrelevant.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Obviousness

Present value analysis. Income generated twenty years from now has such small present value that it’s not going to encourage much additional current investment into a product. Twenty years are entirely too long for a patent to last being that income generated in those additional distant future years do not add much present value to encourage much further investment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Obviousness

Saying that something is technically infeasible (or that it’s not yet technically feasible given the current state of technology) is different than saying that something isn’t obvious. An idea maybe obvious, like creating a 5 or 6 or 10 or 100 Ghz computer with 90 GB of ram, but it maybe technically infeasible at the time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Obviousness

(to continue) and this is one of the problems with our patent system. They grant monopolies on new solutions to new problems. Granting a monopoly on something that is not quite technically feasible yet, or that has recently become technically feasible, is nonsense. The government should first allow the free market some time to solve a problem after a solution is technically feasible, and this problem certainly doesn’t require a patent or that much time (and definitely not twenty years) before a solution is developed once technical feasibility is in place, before granting a patent on anything.

The patent on the saw that stops upon coming into contact with human skin might be an example of a good patent, being that’s it’s a NEW solution to an OLD problem (though a legal system that requires saw makers to use it or face unnecessary risk and that doesn’t place an reasonable upper limit on patent licensing fees is a system that encourages extortion).

Del Boy says:

Seems Sensible to me

This patent issue can be used to great advantage.

I’m thinking of patenting bum wiping, no-ones got that yet! – or perhaps nose picking with your index finger!.

Then I’m gonna sue everyone who has a dump! & get the registration number of the car with the nosepicker in it so I can sue him rotten.

Thank you very much patent office. If it wasn’t for your stupidity none of this would be possible…….

Bengie says:

Patent Office Employees

They need to have 3 person groups that are specialized in the area for which a patent is applied.

eg. I want to make a patent for a notification system for late trains. This patent request should get routed to a group of 3 employees that specialize in Computer Information Systems or something similar/related and a majority rule is used to give out the patent.

The amount of money paid to have groups of specialized people would cost tax payers less than the social cost of horrible patents.

greg.fenton (profile) says:

Re: Patent Office Employees

You are talking about revamping a broken system.

But I ask: what benefit does society get from having awarded these patents? Where is the justification in tweaking the system rather than simply scrapping it?

A governmental authority body is established for some purpose. If that purpose is not being met, then consider tweaking it.

If there is no actual measurement of whether the purpose is being met (or worse, it has the opposite effect) then the body should be scrapped entirely.

Anonymous Coward says:

It seems to me that in each of these cases the patent system did in fact work properly. An invention was conceived, an application prepared describing the invention, claims proffered, a consideration of the prior art measured against the claims, a determination that the invention as claimed was new, useful, and nonobvious, and a patent issued based upon the prior art considered during the processing of the application.

The system is not perfect because decisions can only be made on the evidence that is produced while an application is being considered. If a relevant piece of prior art (be it a written article, a description of work done by another that predates the effective filing date of an application, etc. remains undiscovered it is simply not possible to anticipate and apply an unknown piece or pieces of prior art. This does not reflect that the USPTO is corrupt, populated by examiners who are technically clueless, etc. It merely reflects that the methodology employed to identify relevant prior art is, like all human activities, imperfect. Simply put, better searches tend to yield better consideration of the patentability of the various presented claims. Improve searches and the system as a whole improves accordingly. Unfortunately, unlike what was used as search techniques pre the early 80’s, far too much reliance is placed on keyword searches that can easily miss the most relevant prior art, and it is my view that the use of keyword searches is an important failing of the current search system. To some degree this failing is ameliorated by processes known as reissue and reexamination, but these processes kick in after a patent has issued. The processes do work, but how much nicer it would be if the art forming the basis for the kickoff of these processe had been brought to light and considered while the application was being processed. Improve the search process and the patent system improves accordingly.

A much more important problem as I see it is that in a few circles a small group of persons treat patents not as adjuncts to bringing a product to market, but as mere negotiable instruments resembiling little more than the transfer of such instruments to persons/groups building “business plans” around nothing more that purchasing paper and then asserting the paper. While perfectly legal, it serves to undercut the reason why patent law was created in the first instance and reinforce the notion that our laws are not functioning as originally intended.

Rather than crying “it’s obvious” and, hence, the system is broken, the proper focus should be directed to means by which more prior art can be presented during prosecution of an application. Improve searching techniques and more relevant evidence is brought to light.

As for “lawsuit mills” a means to ameliorate what most within the law profession view as mere “ambulance chasing”, one possible answer is to consider various amendments to current law. I am sure there are others, including, perhaps, judicial interpretations of existing law…and particularly in the area of damage awards. One positive step is the CAFC’s recent decision to much more closely scrutinize the methods used by expert witnesses testifying at trial much more closely to mitigate “pie in the sky” methods that grossly overstate what is deemed to comprise a “reasonable royalty”. Coupled with the recent decision to limit the grant of permanent injunctions a groundwork is being laid that holds the promise of making “ambulance chasing” suits much less financially attractive to those companies who do nothing more than sell/but “paper”.

greg.fenton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You state that the system worked properly. You discuss ways of possibly improving some issues. Except that no where in your long entry did you in fact discuss whether there was progess in the art, the whole point and only goal of the system.

The fact that a description was submitted and accepted does not show that society at large benefited from this system. The information being available does not mean that the information is useful or usable.

And the fact that the information is now patented means that there is less incentive for people to experiment in that particular field at this time. Better to work in other areas where advancements might not be barred or have licensing taxes placed on marketable outcomes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I keep seeing “but it must promote progress” as an argument, but it misses the point. The patent system has always been a quid pro quo system…disclosure in return for the possibility of receiving a patent. As used in the Constitution the word progress has as its meaning the encouragement of disclosure at as early a time as possible so that knowledge is imparted to the public.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Disclosure is a red hearing. It works on the principle that the inventor has some sort of special ability to come up with the invention that others don’t have. In reality the inventions are small steps forward based on the technology base that is current at the time of the invention. The “inventor” is just the first one in a race to grab a patent and stifle the any competition on the same path.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I do not agree that “disclosure is a red herring”. “Progress” as used and understood at the time the Constitution was ratified and the first patent act was enacted signified the disclosure of information to the public at large. Thus, the quid pro quo was to disclose as soon as possible in exchange for the possibility of being granted a patent in the event the statutory requirements for a patent were met. Perhaps others were working on very similar inventions, but unless their work was disclosed to the public they were not contributors to “progress”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I would much rather have a system where this specific inventor kept his idea a secret and I can independently come up with the same idea without having to worry about who has a monopoly on what (or I can ask some other inventor, who doesn’t require such a monopoly, for help). To say that some inventor can come up with something that no one else will independently come up with, without monopoly rents, for TWENTY years is nonsense.

BearGriz72 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

RJR is that you hiding under there?

It seems to me that in each of these cases the patent system did in fact work properly. {1}An invention was conceived, {2}an application prepared describing the invention, {3}claims proffered, {4}a consideration of the prior art measured against the claims, {5}a determination that the invention as claimed was new, useful, and nonobvious, and {6}a patent issued based upon the prior art considered during the processing of the application.

You make 6 apparent statements of fact in this comment. Let’s take a look at those shall we?

{1} An invention was conceived: Maybe if it was not copied from somewhere else. With the fact that the US Patent system (Ridiculously) is moving from first to invent to first to patent there is an actual incentive to patent the works of others.
{2} an application prepared describing the invention: Ok that one I will give you. An application was indeed prepared describing the invention but whether or not it is sufficiently detailed is a good question. Many patents are so broad and loosely described as to cover anything even vaguely similar.
{3} claims proffered: OK but are the claims being proffered Accurate? I have seen some whoppers on patent application before.
{4} a consideration of the prior art measured against the claims: Bullshit – I have seen patent applications that were patenting ideas that have been around for years. USPTO does not even bother to check.
{5} a determination that the invention as claimed was new, useful, and nonobvious: Ha, Ha, & Ha (See Point 4)
{6} a patent issued based upon the prior art considered during the processing of the application: Well I will giv you that a patent was issued but the rest of the sentence is bunk as noted above.

Please Grow a Brain and Try Again!

Alex (profile) says:

Re: Re: Just to be clear about what "first to file" means

“First to patent” (actually called First to File) does not mean prior art isn’t considered. What it means is that if two people both apply for a patent on a similar invention, and no prior art is found to invalidate it, then the one who gets to the patent office first gets the patent. If there is prior art, then neither of them get the patent.

First to File actually makes it easier to invalidate bad patents, because prior art only needs to date from before when the patent was filed, not the earlier date of the claimed invention.

Allen Smith says:

Patent is WAY overly broad

Claim 1:
“monitoring travel data associated with the vehicle; comparing planned timing of the vehicle … contacting a user communications device before the vehicle reaches a vehicle stop … and informing the user of the vehicle delay…”

So if I call my wife to tell her my plane is now scheduled to land at 7 instead of 6:20 I am infringing their patent – ridiculous. I think it won’t be hard to find some “prior art” of people calling someone to tell them that their plane, train, bus is running late.

Jamie Carl (profile) says:

That’s it. This article is the final straw. Sorry, Mike. But yet again I have become far too frustrated with the world’s stupidity and it’s time for me to stop reading Techdirt and go bury my head in the sand. I sincerely mean no offence by it, but as the constant purveyor of bad news like this and my growing disdain for the IP world at large, I have no choice but to avoid this website.

Fair well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Or, better yet, educate others. If the people who oppose IP reach a critical mass it will be abolishes and have a HARD time ever returning. The problem is that the public is mostly unaware of the problems. I bet that if most people become aware of the problematic nature of our IP system they will demand it be fixed.

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