Monday, December 13, 2010

Prometheus and the Cowboys

The 19th century author Horatio Alger, Jr. wrote numerous books containing what came to be known as rags-to-riches stories and though few of Alger's characters became extremely wealthy, the myth worked its way into the American collective unconscious. Who wouldn't want to believe the optimistic message that with hard work, the right ideas, and good timing any one of us could accumulate wealth? The promise or pursuit of wealth is commonly used to brush aside concerns about centralization of power, social responsibility, even morality.

The recent announcement that FlightPrep filed a patent infringement lawsuit against the popular website RunwayFinder has sent shock waves through the aviation community. One doesn't have to be an intellectual property attorney to understand this case, but it would probably help. At the center of the controversy is a patent granted to FlightPrep that appears to credit them (I'm a layperson paraphrasing here) with the invention of software depicting a navigational course on a chart for the purposes of flight planning where much of the source data (charts, obstructions, weather) are stored on a host computer and displayed on a less powerful computer.

It appears that FlightPrep's intention is to license their invention and those who may already be using their patented concept in their products will presumably need to pony up. I say "presumably" because while it appears FlightPrep and RunwayFinder are working to reach an agreement, as of this writing that agreement is pending.

Those old enough to remember the late 1980's may remember the Grand GIF Debacle. A developer named Terry Welch created a high-performance variation of the LZ78 lossless data-compression algorithm called LZW. A patent was granted for LZW which eventually came to be held by Unisys. Compuserve, one of the early pioneers of on-line services, was hampered by limited network bandwidth (weren't we all?) at a time when 56 kbit/second modems were the coolest thing since punched cards. The use of the LZW for compressing graphic image files (GIFs) became widespread and in the early 1990s, Unisys and Compuserve began licensing negotiations and reached an agreement.

Then Unisys dropped a bombshell: They expected all on-line services and users of the now widespread LZW GIF format to pay licensing fees. Since the use of GIF images had become popular, this action after the fact was widely condemned. Though Unisys tried to ease the financial burden of licensing, the damage to their reputation had been done: They were seen by many as trying to stifle innovation and hindering the development of the fledgling internet. Eventually the patent expired, things got back to normal, and the internet continues to develop.

A few years before this debacle, I was employed at a now-defunct mainframe computer manufacturer and together with a co-worker, developed a method for exchanging data between an operating system and the underlying propriety hardware for a data communications interface. Someone, I think it was our manager, suggested that we try to patent this scheme. We rolled our eyes as if to say "Hey, this is just software written to solve a design problem." The idea that we were the first people to think of, let alone implement such a scheme seemed unlikely, but more importantly patents had nothing to do with what was interesting to most of us programmers. What floated our boats was solving problems, creating new designs, innovating, and moving on to the next project. Some of us may have even felt ourselves to be like the cowboys of yore, hard-working, self-reliant folk who savored the freedom to roam a digital frontier.

I'm not an expert on patents or intellectual property, but as someone with significant programming experience the fact that a patent was granted to FlightPrep seems fantastic to me. Sailors have been laying plotters on charts and drawing course lines for centuries. Pilots have been doing the same for decades. The idea that this process would ultimately be done by a computer or a network of computers is a obvious extension of a manual activity already in practice. The concept of some of the input data being accessed from different computers, to my mind, is not at all novel: Data stored on different computers is what the internet is all about. It appears that the patent attorneys and the US Patent Office came to a different conclusion. Like it or not, we live in a world where corporations try to patent an individual's DNA or apply to trademark the word "face."

So the question remains: Will a few individuals try to assert control of something so basic and widespread, presumably for their own financial gain, or will they learn from history and see the folly of such a course of action? Without knowing the exact intentions of FlightPrep, it's hard to say how their patent claim and desire to license their "technology" will affect GA and flight planning software services. FlightPrep claims they don't want to stifle innovation or increase costs, but the fact remains they filed a lawsuit against Runway Finder. GA pilots have come to expect a variety of flight planning options and the last thing we need is a riches-to-rags story.


John said...

I wouldn't be surprised if going after RunwayFinder, FlyAGoGo, and SkyVector (who has paid the ransom) are test cases for going after other, bigger fish. BTW, doesn't ForeFlight use Runway Finder's data? Even if they don't seems like FlightPrep could go after them too, for similar reasons.

Colin said...

The can't go after ForeFlight because the charts for ForeFlight are stored locally. They could go after WeatherMeister, though.

The USPTO is aware that the software (and business model patents) is broken, but there are way too many out there.

FlightPrep is simply trying to find money. Nothing more or less. They claim in their comments that they are trying to get "their" technology out to more pilots. If that were true they would hire a UI expert like Jakob Nielsen and fix their horrible site and software. They are just trying to make a buck off people who did it better than they did.

Brian said...

Ugh. This makes me sick, the patent system is so broken. Patents are being awarded for vague and unspecific methods and also for seriously obvious methods, and also methods that with any real searching, are based on prior art.

Sucks being an innovator these days, you have to either spend thousands on an Freedom To Operate search and then pay the Mafia, er... patent trolls protection money.

Brett said...

Though I respect the concept of software patents, this one was awarded in error. This is such an obvious extension of a basic technology. Their defense is that they are legally in the right. That may be so, but they are morally in the wrong. I will go out of my way to avoid any product from FlightPrep for now on. Had they really patented a true innovative technology I would be on their side.

BTW, check out the user comments on FlightPrep's Facebook wall.

Mark said...

I agree with Brett. I will NEVER purchase a FlightPrep product after seeing their heavy handed dealings in this case. Next they will be claiming that they invented the internet or the act of breathing for that matter. They should spend more time fixing their pitiful website so that it loads in a reasonable amount of time. Then maybe they would get more users the old fashion way, by having a good product that people desire to use.