Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have noticed me railing against a company called FlightPrep. You may be wondering, what exactly is the big deal?
The short of the story is, there were a bunch of websites out there dedicated to flight planning. Some of the best ones (SkyVector, Flyagogo, NACOmatc and, best of all RunwayFinder) allowed you to plot a course overlaying a VFR Chart the same way you would in Google Maps. You could modify your route simply by dragging it about, and click airports along the route to get current weather reports. It was kinda like Google Maps for preflight intelligence.
Well, along comes this company called FlightPrep, who decided they weren’t getting rich enough (just ignore the owner’s $500k boat). So they convinced the USPTO to give them a patent on, bluntly, drawing digital lines on a digitized chart. The filed for the patent in 2005 (after a number of the sites above were already online), but used legal sleight-of-hand to get it backdated to 2001. Eventually, after a number of rejections, they were able to find a friendly clerk and were awarded the patent.
They then immediately lawyered up and started going after all of these free flight planning websites, many of which were simply hobbies of some pilots who also happened to know how to program. They requested that these sites “license the technology” (what a ludicrous thing to say, being that the sites pre-dated FlightPrep’s patent) or face lawsuits with damage claims of $149 per unique IP per month.
So what happened? SkyVector settled and “licensed.” NACOmatic, Flyagogo and RunwayFinder all shut down under threat of lawsuit. They’ve also gone after FlightAware, Jeppesen and the AOPA with no success, so far.
It’s pretty clear that, instead of innovating, they’re litigating. Rather than develop some radical new technology, they’re abusing the patent system in an attempt to corner the market.
Bluntly, I’m pissed because they robbed me of a tool (RunwayFinder) that I loved and that was highly useful for a student pilot.
But, general aviation is a small community, and the backlash against FlightPrep has been a beautiful if small-scale example of what happens when you abuse your target market. Within the course of a week, they’ve become a pariah and the most hated company in general aviation. They had to close off their Facebook page because it was being overrun with people voicing their opinion, and their products are receiving highly negative reviews in all markets.
But, while this is all great, it doesn’t bring back RunwayFinder. Even though Dave from RunwayFinder has decided to fight back, he faces a long uphill climb to have this asinine patent thrown out.
In the end, it’s just sad. As I said, GA is a small community where nobody is getting rich. We’re all supposed to be on the same team.