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Patents Being Abused To Put Your Life In Danger

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March 9, 2009

By Mike Masnick (Techdirt)[1]

For years we've been writing about various abuses of the patent system, and how they damage innovation. There are times when we hear about abuses of the patent system that actually put lives in danger -- often around the pharmaceutical industry. At least in that case, you can sometimes understand the basic reasoning (even if it's actually incorrect). However, we recently came across an example of the patent system being abused in such an egregious manner that it's putting many lives at stake...

Bob Austin, who for many years has worked in major metropolitan fire and EMS departments, had the idea of creating an open source medical dispatch system. Such a system would have numerous benefits. Beyond being a free system, it also would allow best practices to easily bubble up in a way that actively would help save lives. If another EMS department could improve on the system, they easily could do so and contribute it back to the community.

One of the parts of the system was a project called Cards 911, which was a useful document for use by emergency dispatchers. Basically, it gave them a simple script to follow when an emergency call came in, asking where they were, the nature of the emergency, how many people injured, etc. The answers to certain questions would lead the dispatcher to different parts of the document using hyperlinks. The entire document (and, yes, it was just a document) was created in OpenOffice Writer and was offered either as a document file or a PDF file. In other words, this was basically a script with hyperlinks in it, that helped an emergency dispatcher get the necessary information, and help the caller as quickly as possible -- and it was free and open.

Who could possibly complain about that?

Apparently the lawyers for a company called Priority Dispatch Corporation, who sent a legal nastygram listing out ten patents that the company held, which the lawyers implied the Cards 911 project violated. Remember, this is a script written as a document. The lawyers were careful never to actually say which of the ten patents the cards violated, but simply listed them all out and said "Our investigation has revealed that the... Guide Cards may infringe on one or more of Priority Dispatch's patents and/or copyrights." Not only that, but the lawyers then demanded that all physical and electronic copies of the documents be destroyed.

Given the position they were in, as open source developers doing this for the good of the public, rather than as any sort of business endeavor, the folks involved in the project complied with the demands of the lawyer. They destroyed everything, both electronic and physical and agreed not to work on any emergency dispatch systems in the future. The project is no longer available, and our emergency dispatch systems are that much worse off because of it.

Furthermore, in investigating this further, it appears that it would be impossible to craft any sort of competing product that lives up to NHTSA and ASTM official standards without violating Priority Dispatch's patents, based on the what the company seems to believe they cover. If you would like to see all ten patents for yourself, they're listed here:

The whole situation is rather sickening, and I'm really hoping that folks here might be able to help see if we can get this project back on track. Priority Dispatch's decision to scare these open source developers into submission for merely offering up a free project to help save lives is really a rather disgusting use of the patent system, and obviously goes against the very purpose of that system: "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts." Instead, such things are being actively stymied in a way that puts all of us at risk.

The folks working on this project have no money (and no intention of making any money from the project), but they could use some help. In my discussions with them, they simply wanted me to know about their story, and weren't asking for help per se, but it would be great if we could, as a community, come up with ways to get this project moving again, so that we can all be safer. If anyone has thoughts or ideas on how to help Bob, please let us know in the comments, and let's see what can be done. At the very least, please help spread this story and let others know about it.

First seen on Techdirt. Thanks to Mike Masnick and Techdirt for covering these documents.

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