Subway, McDonald's And Burger King Sued Over GPS Tracking Patent… Or Something

from the stupid-patent-of-the-month dept

GPS technology has been around for a while. Wikipedia puts the start of development at 1973. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that it became available for consumer use. And even then, it took some time before the government removed restrictions on accuracy that it had on its use by civilians. (The government had added an intentional error to the signal that made GPS variably inaccurate up to 50 meters.)

With the loosening of restrictions on GPS came furious development in consumer applications?and a flurry of patents.

Which brings us to this month’s Stupid Patent of the Month. The dubious honor goes to U.S. Patent No. 6,442,485, “Method and apparatus for an automatic vehicle location, collision notification, and synthetic voice,” filed in 1999. The “Background of the Invention” talks about a need for an automatic voice system that could speak for a driver involved in a collision and transmit location details to 911. For example, the patent says that “[i]t would be desirable to have an automatic vehicle location and collision notification system that would ascertain if a vehicular collision had occurred and communicate directly with an emergency facility.”

But after this background, the patent devolves into a wilderness of made-up words and technobabble. The patent includes fabricated phrases such as “Location Comparator-Indicator Module” and “Automatic Speed Controlled Location Detection Module.” (Google searches of these phrases turns up nothing other than results related to the patent.) Reading the patent to try to figure out what it means becomes an exercise in cross-referencing and guesswork. Even worse, key terms in the claims (this is the part of the patent that is supposed to clearly explain what that patent covers) don’t even appear in the description of the purported invention. This means  that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to understand what the claims mean and to guess how a court might interpret them.

This sort of made-up gobbledygook is likely what has allowed NovelPoint Tracking LLP, the owner of this month’s Stupid Patent, to sue over 90 companies for infringement. The latest round of lawsuits, filed on March 27, 2015, includes companies such as Subway (the sandwich artists, not a company related to transportation), McDonald’s, and Burger King.

And what do these fast food franchises have to do with vehicle location, collisions, and synthetic voices? With respect to Subway, NovelPoint claims that Subway’s Windows phone mobile application infringes NovelPoint’s patent.

Here’s the description of Subway’s app from Microsoft’s website:

Don’t know where to find a local Subway? We’re here to help. This app will display a list of local Subway locations along with the ability to get directions and let your friends know where to meet you.

We don’t know what, exactly, NovelPoint thinks it owns, but it looks like it is accusing Subway of infringing because it has an app that shows a map with directions. And given the incomprehensibility of its patent, it can get away with this, at least enough to secure a quick settlement and get out before a court rules that no, in fact, it doesn’t own a map with directions.

And indeed that is what appears to have happened. Of the almost 100 cases NovelPoint has filed, exactly none of the cases has had a decision on the merits of NovelPoint’s claims. From what we can see, all of the cases have settled very quickly, most likely for small nuisance sums.

Patent owners shouldn’t be able to get away with this. Patents should be clear and understandable. If new words are used, they should be defined. And if words already exist in the relevant art, they should be used. NovelPoint’s patent is a great example of how using fake terms can be used to obfuscate what the patent actually claims, and then used to claim infringement by something no one would have considered the patent owner to have invented. We have laws that should prevent this sort of gaming. The Patent Office and courts need to start actually enforcing them. 

Reposted from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Deeplinks blog

Filed Under: , , ,
Companies: burger king, mcdonald's, novelpoint, novelpoint tracking, subway

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Subway, McDonald's And Burger King Sued Over GPS Tracking Patent… Or Something”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The page you find satisfactory shows nothing pertaining to expertise in the relevant technical arts, which is not at all surprising given the substantive content of the article. It is quite possible the reason the author is confused about the specific patent is because she has no technical background in electronics.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Entirely possible that one with an electronics background might find it difficult to navigate the patent, but take the time to read it in more than a casual manner and the task of understanding its teachings is much less daunting. Of course, the more experience one has reviewing patents the easier it becomes to wade through its somewhat arcane style.

My intent in originally commenting was not to come to the defense of patents in general, and this one in particular, but to note that an argument from someone without a technical background on a subject requiring a technical background misses the mark.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Entirely possible that one with an electronics background might find it difficult to navigate the patent,

Your own statement shows this patent is utter crap.

The entire point of a patent is to describe a invention that is non-obvious to someone skilled in the art such that the person skilled in the art could understand it.

The patent system is not a system to create jobs for patent lawyers skilled in navigating it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Perhaps you would be satisfied if every technical document (patent, journal article, manufacturing data, etc) was required to be written in exquisite detail that can be understood by virtually all. Patents are not at all unique in requiring some effort on the part of a reader to understand the content.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

I read the patent and did not find its technical description and claims ambiguous and beyond comprehension. Then again, I have analyzed many such documents and know full well that an investment in time is needed to understand what they are talking about. Apparently, the author has neither the time nor inclination to make the investment. Can’t say I blame her since she has no technical background, which is a prerequisite, but to me that means she should have had someone else with the requisite background prepare the article.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

Apparently you are someone who is perfectly happy letting others think for you. Heck, you probably even bought into that whole “hope and change” thing.

This patent is a technical matter, and one is to foolish critique a technical discussion if they have a non-technical background.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Is it me...

Now that you mention it, yeah, it rather does. Given that, the following might be a bit awkward for the patent troll involved, given their patent was filed in 1999:

‘OnStar was formed in 1995 as a collaboration between GM, Electronic Data Systems and Hughes Electronics Corporation.

In 1996, GM North America Operations President Rick Wagoner officially launched OnStar at the Chicago Auto Show. OnStar delivered its first product and service to the market in 11 months, in the fall of 1996 for model year 1997 Cadillac DeVille, Cadillac Seville and Cadillac Eldorado models.’

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Is it me...

…I’m not current on what is allowed, but automated notifications to 911 services in the US were not allowed in the late 90’s…

AFAIK no auto dialer of any kind can call a US emergency service provider, and that’s been federal law for all my life! You’d be surprised at how many salespeople of alarm systems represent that the alarm panel sends it’s signal to emergency services. That’s illegal: the signals must go to a 3rd party monitoring service who is supposed to qualify the signal and then notify emergency service. (Not saying that always works, but that’s another story.)

DogBreath says:

Subway has only itself to blame for this one

If Subway didn’t want to get sued by NovelPoint, it should remove the apps ability to report the vehicles location in a synthetic voice after the driver crashes into the Subway sandwich shop.

Oh…, the app doesn’t do that???

Sounds like it might be time to contact and get some assistance from the Newegg legal team, to digest and pass some more patent trolls, as I hear those same trolls make great fertilizer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Read the author’s bio, note the lack of a technical background, note legal experience to date, and then read the patent to try and figure out what she is saying with her numerous generalizations. Perhaps then you will have the data that informed my original comment.

Following that, take a course in expressing yourself without resort to gutter language. Otherwise, your comments come off as juvenile and mean-spirited.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...