What Now, FlightPrep?
Several times I've asked FlightPrep what their goal was with the patent they received on online flight planning. The first time was Jan. 21, 2010 right after they announced the patent and here's the email exchange with then-CEO John Bouyea.
"What does this mean for all the other online flight planners out there John?"
The answer: "We are excited to receive this patent and we appreciate your question. The patent may be interesting reading for other providers and the aviation industry as a whole."
Well, thanks for nothing. We could have cleared up quite a bit right then and there. However, the truth is that despite all the publicity and rancorous debate (most of it condemnation) about FlightPrep's enforcement of the patent, we still don't know any more about its plans than we did when I asked that question almost a year ago. Cloaked by lawyers and swaddled in vacuous platitudes that infuriate rather than inform the pilots who might have considered becoming their customers up to about 10 days ago, FlightPrep continues to hold its cards close to its chest.
While that was of looming concern in the middle of December, now, as New Year's Eve approaches, it's become merely irritating and may soon be irrelevant to most of us. The truth is that online flight planning may not be the only game in town and pilots will continue to draw lines on maps, virtually or otherwise, without the need for FlightPrep's permission.
During its eight months of planning and deliberation on how to proceed with exploiting the patent (the first letters inviting secret discussions with alleged patent infringers went out at the end of August), FlightPrep almost certainly considered the possibility that people might not like what they were doing. That there's been no evidence of that sentiment in its actions since August is what leads us to the current state of affairs.
According to patent attorney Lionel Lavenue, whom we interviewed for a very illuminating podcast, FlightPrep could very well defend challenges to this patent and it's also applied to broaden the reach of the current patent.
So far, the only one testing the legal waters is Dave Parsons, the owner of RunwayFinder and it's not by choice. FlightPrep is suing him, even though he voluntarily shut down his popular Web site, thus removing any future threat to FlightPrep. The continued belligerence by FlightPrep has rubbed the aviation community the wrong way and that's where FlightPrep has erred seriously in all of its carefully laid plans.
Patent law is an inherently arcane (and absolutely necessary) area of the legal system that is almost entirely the domain of those who practice it. It's lawyers against lawyers agonizing over the definition of words, terms and processes. Seldom does it attract the notice of the end users of the product because it usually gets all settled in the background, often before products even hit market.
In this case, however, the end users have been provoked and they're turning out in significant numbers to fight a perceived injustice. In practical terms, it matters little whether there is the legal justification for FlightPrep's position that Lavenue has described for us. The issue has energized a close-knit and intelligent community of like-minded folks who are rallying to the defense of one of their own.
I doubt FlightPrep ever thought there would be petition Web sites against them or forums filled with comments swearing never to buy their products when they huddled with their lawyers on how to proceed with this patent.
The question now is what to do about it. In court, FlightPrep is not just fighting Dave Parsons. It's fighting a rapidly growing constituency of former customers and never-to-be-potential customers who are donating money and volunteering their time researching ways to keep FlightPrep from prevailing in this suit.
While, according to Lavenue, the normal course in patent enforcement is to tackle the perceived weak players first to test the waters, as we all know, the normal course doesn't always apply to the aviation business, which is driven more by passion than business sense at times. The truth is, FlightPrep likely would have been better off to take on AOPA and Jeppesen. The aviation community might have seen some value in that. It definitely does not see the wisdom of attacking a guy working from his house on Mercer Island, WA who put his talents to work coming up with a widget for his fellow pilots and didn't want to go broke providing it.
If I may be so bold as to offer a little advice, it's time to ratchet this back a full turn. Let's go back to the fact that there is a patent and discuss what it means. Stop with the non-disclosure agreements and the posturing, which we're told is normal for this sort of thing, but which isn't helping. Regardless of how carefully formulated your business plan is, accept the fact that it ain't working.
And for God's sake cancel the lawsuit against RunwayFinder. You've turned a well-respected man and his family's (not a company, a family) life upside down for what may be just a few misdirected emails, in my judgement. Stop it. Stop it now as a sign of good faith to a community of which you claim to be a part and that you absolutely need to succeed.
Then give the lawyers some time off and lay it all out for us-as part of us. You have our attention, but probably not for long.