Big patent drama in little business: flight planning software vendor FlightPrep has succeeded in bullying free website RunwayFinder offline with a patent lawsuit. It’s not much different from all the other software patent nonsense that goes on, but what makes it poignant is it’s in the small world of general aviation where we’re all supposed to be friends and where no one is making much money.

What follows is my opinion. I'm not a lawyer nor an expert in patent law. I do understand something about software design, though. If this patent affects you, please seek appropriate legal counsel, don't take my word for it.

Long story short, FlightPrep got a flight planning patent a few months ago and started going after every other online flight planning service. They convinced SkyVector to license, FlyAGoGo shut down, and they sued RunwayFinder claiming $3.2 million / month in damages. RunwayFinder would be lucky if it makes $500 / month in advertising and seems to be a hobby project for its founder. Rather than risk the lawsuit hanging over him, he shut down.

The lawsuit is over patent 7,640,098, a flight planning patent that was originally filed in 2001. It’s a divisional patent that had a lot of trouble being issued, the actual claims that were granted seem to come from September, 2005. There’s lots of prior art: RunwayFinder itself launched in July, 2005 (see also August, 2005). There’s older prior art too, FalconView and AeroPlanner are two names that come up.

The patent itself is very specific and I think most software would not infringe. For instance, the primary claims (1, 11, and 21) all contain specific language about “housekeeping frames,” but who uses frames to do anything? The patent also describes lots of other implementation details that do not seem necessary or even a good idea. FlightPrep themselves makes very broad descriptions of what they own, but it’s not what the patent says.

Finally, as is typical with software patents, most of the claims granted seem obvious to someone with ordinary skill in the art. The patent appears to me to boil down to “draw some lines between points on a map”. It’s hardly novel to apply line-drawing to aviation maps in particular. RunwayFinder itself was very nicely done, but basically was the obvious “Google Maps for aviation” implementation.

Of course none of this armchair analysis helps RunwayFinder; once a patent is granted, you need an expensive lawyer to challenge it. What puzzles me is what FlightPrep thought they’d gain by forcing a small free site offline. My guess is they’re bolstering their patent before going after Jeppesen, the only flight planning company making real money. Then again Jepp can afford lawyers.

Update: nailed it! FlightPrep did go after Jeppesen and AOPA, and Jeppesen has responded by telling FlightPrep to take a hike.

Update 2: this story is getting some play and some of the commentary has been quite hostile towards FlightPrep and Stenbock & Everson, the plaintiffs in the patent suit. While I'm upset about what's happened to RunwayFinder too, I think it's wiser to speak respectfully of our colleagues in aviation software. I am hopeful they will see how fruitless pursuing these patent claims will be, undo the damage they've done, and go back to concentrating on making products for pilots.

Update 3: Flightaware declined to discuss licensing the FlightPrep patent. FltPlan has refused. SkyVector has shared more of their story about why they licensed.

Update 4: I'm about to leave on a 3 week flying trip and can't stay on top of this story. No more updates. I expect things to quiet down, but this story isn't really over until Dave is free of the lawsuit and can bring RunwayFinder back online.

Update 2011-03-29: After three months offline RunwayFinder is back online with the statement "sat down with FlightPrep and FlightPrep agreed to dismiss the lawsuit! The exact details of the settlement license are confidential."

Update 2012-05-13: FlightPrep sued Jeppesen in late 2011. Also RunwayFinder shut down in 2011; I don't think it ever really recovered from the discouragement.
  2012-05-13 16:24 Z