In the days before Christmas, the offices of FlightPrep at the Aurora State Airport in Oregon were inundated with calls — and not ones wishing happy holidays. Instead, the calls were from pilots angry that the company’s attempts to enforce its patent for online flight planning forced the closure of a popular flight planning website, RunwayFinder.com.
FlightPrep officials weren’t surprised by the e-mails and calls and sprang into action to explain their side of the story. But some weren’t listening. “The upsetting thing was that we received a few absolutely terrible e-mail and phone call threats that had to be reported to authorities,” said Ross Neher, general manager. “I cannot believe that some of these people are pilots or claim to be. To me a good pilot typically weighs all options and gathers all information before making a decision and I hope the reasonable pilots out there that are interested in the story continue to do so.”
The controversy began earlier this year when FlightPrep began contacting flight planning websites to start negotiations to enforce its patent, which was awarded in 2009. It managed to reach a licensing agreement with one, SkyVector.com, but the problems began when another popular site, RunwayFinder.com, informed its users that because of a lawsuit filed by FlightPrep, it had to be shut down.
The site was started in 2005 by Dave Parsons, a software engineer, as a side project to help pilots plan their flights. As a one-man show, Parsons said he couldn’t afford to fight a lawsuit.
How it got to this point depends on who you ask.
FlightPrep officials say they had to file the lawsuit against Parsons because he wouldn’t respond to any of their e-mails or letters. “How else can you get someone’s attention?” asked Neher.
On his blog, Parsons tells a different story: “In August, I received a letter from FlightPrep. The only thing the letter asked for was to enter into a confidentiality agreement. I was advised that this was a tactic used by unfriendly companies to conduct a fishing expedition under a cloak of confidentiality and that I should not respond. Despite that, I wrote an e-mail to Roger Stenbock, one of the owners of FlightPrep and a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. I responded to an e-mail he wrote earlier in the summer fishing for information about RunwayFinder’s revenues. I received no response. I received another letter a few weeks later in September that was almost exactly the same, no mention of infringement or lawsuit and inviting me to enter into a confidentiality agreement. Between September 2010 and the time the lawsuit was filed, I heard nothing. No phone calls. No emails. No letters.”
In late December, FlightPrep offered RunwayFinder a free license during the negotiations process, but Parsons instead took the site offline. While he says his initial instinct was to just shut down the website and move on, he found that that didn’t make the lawsuit go away. “I got an indication from FlightPrep that that was not enough,” he said.
He’s found an attorney and plans to fight the patent. “I think there is a clear path toward fighting the lawsuit against RunwayFinder, and potentially a way to invalidate their patent,” he said in a blog post on his site.
He’s created a defense fund on his website, with supporters able to donate through PayPal. He said he’s received “quite a few” donations, which is “rather surprising.” While initially he planned to create a trust for the donations, he found that this was too complicated and time-consuming. “I’ve decided to keep the donation process simple for now,” he said in his blog. “I pledge to you that every penny will go toward patent research, attorneys fees, court fees, and other costs directly related to defending RunwayFinder. I will forward any funds remaining to the next company that FlightPrep goes after. If the issue dies out, I will pass the money to another general aviation defense fund project.”
The ideal outcome, according to Parsons, is that the lawsuit is dropped and everything goes back to how it was before. “I’d like to go back to spending my free time adding features to RunwayFinder rather than responding to this lawsuit,” he said. “If there’s one good thing that has come out of this, it’s the increased contact I’ve had with other flying-related websites. I’m hoping this gets resolved and that we can work together more to bring even better tools online to make flying safer.”
FlightPrep’s Neher couldn’t agree more. “Having to file a lawsuit is not something that I wanted my small business to have to do,” he said. “We want the suit to go away worse than anyone, as you can imagine, and a license agreement will do that.”
Many in the GA community have likened the court battle to David vs. Goliath. But Neher says that FlightPrep isn’t a giant — it’s just a small company “that had a big idea back in 2001.”
“We have already shown that other online planning sites can work with us to license our technology and not shut down or change in any big way at all,” he said. “We didn’t shut down any websites out there and are not trying to do so. We are currently having conversations with a few companies and sites regarding online planning and will continue to do so. We want pilots to continue to have access to online flight planning — it is a great tool.”
In fact, Neher praised RunwayFinder and its beta site. “We want him to continue working on his beta site,” he said. “It’s a really neat site.”
Neher said the two companies could reach a “viable agreement,” noting that a “viable agreement” doesn’t necessarily include Parsons paying to license the patented flight planning software. “We are agreeable to discussing ways to license our technology that won’t cost his business anything,” Neher said, noting it could be something along the lines of sponsorship or marketing. “There are other possiblities besides financial.”
FlightPrep has also been taken to task for taking on the smaller sites and not the giants in the industry, such as Jeppesen and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which offers a Jeppesen-powered flight planner to its members. Both Jeppesen and AOPA officials have said in statements that the FlightPrep patent does not apply to their flight planner.
“FlightPrep has been in contact with AOPA regarding our patent and online planner technology since 2007,” Neher said. “We will certainly look at their technology and make our own assessment in our own due time to determine whether or not we agree or disagree with their published statement. For now, we are currently assessing the situation.”
FlightPrep officials conceded in a Dec. 14 new release that “some in the pilot community are of the opinion that patents are unfair and should not be granted for software. We doubt we can change their minds with this news release. However, the fact is many patents are issued for software inventions every year. Without them inventors would have little incentive to advance state-of-the-art technologies. Applying for patents and seeking royalties are normal and sound business practices and are done by virtually all successful technology businesses, large or small.”
Neher, who has been busy answering phone calls and e-mails about the patent fight, said most of those contacting the company were “working off of only partial information. Once we simply share the facts with them they let us know that their true hope is for everyone to work together, and that is exactly what we are trying to do. We still hope for a fast and mutually beneficial resolution in this matter but cannot speak any further about continuing litigation or negotiations.”
The company has posted a “myth-vs-fact” sheet on its blog (Blog.FlightPrep.com) “to answer some of the questions and simply state the facts,” Neher added.