Atlantic Cities

The Patent Troll That's Been Bilking Transit Agencies Finally Slinks Away

The Patent Troll That's Been Bilking Transit Agencies Finally Slinks Away
Flickr/Mr. T in DC

Like just about every other legal settlement in the very strange saga of the patent troll that's been suing public transit agencies, this latest agreement is under wraps as well. But at least we know the outcome is finally a good one for transit agencies and their riders: ArrivalStar, the holder of several dubious patents covering real-time transportation notifications, has agreed to stop claiming patent infringement against the 1,500 agencies that belong to the American Public Transportation Association.

APTA sued ArrivalStar in June on behalf of all its members, after the Luxembourg-based patent holder had extracted settlements from at least 11 known U.S. transit agencies over a period of several years. ArrivalStar claimed that the most mundane and publicly beneficial of technologies – apps and systems that track the real-time movement and arrival of buses and trains – violated patents that were more than 20 years old.

ArrivalStar sued the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the New York Metropolitan Transport Authority, and Seattle’s King County Metro Transit, among others. An unknown number of other agencies received letters threatening lawsuits and demanding licensing fees as well. All of the agencies targeted by ArrivalStar evidently made the calculation that it would be less costly to settle with the company than to fight its patent claims in court.

Because all of these settlements were under confidentiality agreements, transit agencies were hamstrung in discussing the quandary publicly and with each other. When we first wrote about this story in April of last year, none of the sued agencies we contacted were able to talk with us about what was rapidly becoming a notorious patent troll problem in transportation circles.

Now, less than two months after APTA filed its own lawsuit to halt the practice, the association has reached a settlement with ArrivalStar that covers all of its members and non-member companies that provide related services to public transit agencies. The agreement does not invalidate the patents. And it doesn't retroactively help the agencies that were the earliest victims of this scheme. But for now, going forward, transit agencies are safe from this patent troll, at least. That much, APTA chief counsel James LaRusch was able to disclose.

Could some other patent holder just start up a similar scam?

"I honestly don’t know," LaRusch says. "Certainly, there are lots of patent assertion entities out there in any number of industries, and in ways I couldn’t even imagine before I read about these people. But as far as we know right now, it looks like transit’s reasonable well protected. That doesn’t mean we won’t find the next PAE coming after a transit agency tomorrow or the next day. But for now we’ve settled, and we’re going to move forward."

A more permanent fix could come from legislation kneecapping blatant patent trolls in Congress.

Top image: Flickr user Mr. T in DC

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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