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


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  • icon
    Vidiot (profile), 31 Mar 2015 @ 4:02pm

    Surprise!

    It's the Eastern District of Texas! Who would've thought?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 31 Mar 2015 @ 11:53pm

      Re: Surprise!

      Patent troll paradise, where no patent is too ridiculous to be upheld, and no judgement is too high? Nah, I'm sure it's just a complete coincidence that the case was filed there.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 1 Apr 2015 @ 12:24am

      Re: Surprise!

      We need a "Well, DUH!" rating button.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 7:26am

      Re: Surprise!

      Has any company come out with a statement along the lines of:
      Due to excessive litigation, we will not be doing business in East Texas.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        JoeCool (profile), 3 Apr 2015 @ 1:58pm

        Re: Re: Surprise!

        It doesn't matter where YOU do business, it only matters where the company suing is located, and East Texas has plenty of tiny offices for trolling firms to rent to justify their bringing suit in East Texas.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Pronounce (profile), 31 Mar 2015 @ 4:03pm

    I 100% Agree, But...

    How do you change a torte system made up of people who make money off of laws and LAWMAKERS (including patent law) that are part of that same system?

    Talk about gaming the system: lawyers making laws is a perfect game scenario.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2015 @ 5:44pm

    Not Likely

    "We have laws that should prevent this sort of gaming. The Patent Office and courts need to start actually enforcing them."

    Not likely. That would be against the patent office's own best interests.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2015 @ 6:10pm

    If the author feels compelled to wax poetic about specific letters patent, it would certainly help to have a relevant technical and legal background.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 31 Mar 2015 @ 6:18pm

      Re:

      Funny you should say such a thing, in such a vague comment, the only thing about which is discernible is your intent.

      Bwah to the ha ha.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2015 @ 7:18pm

      Re:

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2015 @ 7:25pm

        Re: Re:

        Wait a sec - you are citing data ..... and facts!
        Are you sure that is allowed?

        You see some folk think innuendo and vague references are quite sufficient and get all uppity when someone calls bullshit.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2015 @ 7:42pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2015 @ 10:54pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          And all you're doing is stating exactly nothing, talking in circles attempting to appear intelligent.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 5:06am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Well I am an electronic engineer and have done lots of work with GPS systems and I happen to agree with the author of the article.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 6:34am

            Re: Re: Re: 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.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), 1 Apr 2015 @ 10:32am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 11:09am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • icon
                  John Fenderson (profile), 2 Apr 2015 @ 8:08am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                  He didn't say "virtually all". He said "people skilled in the art" -- which is the legal standard. And yes, patents should be written with enough detail that all persons skilled in the art will be able to understand it and reproduce the thing that is patented.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                  • identicon
                    Anonymous Coward, 5 Apr 2015 @ 9:35pm

                    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                    No, the legal standard is people of ordinary skill in the art to which an invention relates. This longstanding standard is narrower in scope than your formulation.

                    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 10:48am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Your fascination with excessively elaborate prose employed at such a level as to obscure your own intent facilitates an individual's understanding of the ease with which you are able to assimilate the extrapolation of such an incongruous patent description.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 11:19am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 12:02pm

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                  Apparently, you are full of shit

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                  • identicon
                    Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 1:43pm

                    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

                    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                    • identicon
                      Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 5:51pm

                      Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                      People generally get tired of circular bullshit even if it is all wrapped up in pretty fluff.

                      Why should I give hot air the same weight as data? Present the facts or blow it out yer ass.

                      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 12:05pm

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                  Me-OW! What a precious little lawyer bitch you've turned out to be.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Blackfiredragon13 (profile), 31 Mar 2015 @ 7:40pm

    Is it me...

    Or does the description of the patent sound more or less like Onstar?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2015 @ 10:48pm

      Re: Is it me...

      exactly what my first thought was

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 31 Mar 2015 @ 11:51pm

      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.'

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Michael, 1 Apr 2015 @ 5:07am

      Re: Is it me...

      Actually no.

      OnStar uses a real human voice to notify emergency services of a collision.

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 9:39am

        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.)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    DogBreath, 1 Apr 2015 @ 9:42am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Apr 2015 @ 6:48pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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