January 5, 2011 | By Julie Samuels

When Bad Patents Hurt Good People: Patent Threat Shuts Down Flight Planning Site

In another example of using patents to stifle—rather than promote—innovation, a company called FlightPrep has come out fighting, threatening online flight planning sites with its newly obtained patent, and going so far as to sue at least one of those sites. That patent, originally filed in 2001, allegedly covers a system for generating flight plans online, hardly a novel concept. And FlightPrep is now using its patent to attempt to extract royalty payments from small companies that have been providing such a service for years—or put them out of business.

A FlightPrep lawsuit has already caused a well-established site, RunwayFinder, to go dark possibly permanently. Started in 2005, RunwayFinder allowed users to check out runway layouts and gather other information about airports, such as current weather, to help them make flight plans. The site’s developer ran RunwayFinder out of his home and relied on ad revenue and paypal donations to keep the site up.

For now, RunwayFinder continues to fight the FlightPrep patent, but patent lawsuits can be long and incredibly expensive. Like many that have come before it—such as the infamous entertaining-a-cat-with-a-laser patent—this dispute is emblematic of a patent system that has lost sight of its purpose. Instead of spurring innovation by encouraging folks to invent new and better ways to do things, the system is often used to impede the development and use of interesting and valuable new tools and services.

Part of EFF's work to fight the chilling effects of bad patents on the public and consumer interests is our ongoing Patent Busting Project. So far nine patents targeted by EFF have been busted, invalidated, narrowed, or had a reexamination granted by the Patent Office.

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