Litigation

TSA Owes $100 Million for Patent Infringement on Plastic Security Bins

When overly broad patents and the TSA clash, there are no heroes.

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In an August opinion released on Friday, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims sided against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in a patent suit that could cost taxpayers over $100 million.

Anybody who has flown commercially is familiar with the dreaded checkpoint process: taking off your shoes, deciding between the body scanner or a pat-down, cramming all of your physical belongings into a plastic bin and shoving it through an X-ray machine.

As it turns out, according to the court's decision, that last process is more complicated than one might assume. The prevailing company, SecurityPoint Holdings, claimed that the TSA's system of stackable trays, moved across a conveyor belt before being transported back to the beginning of the line, illegally infringes upon a design patented by the company's founder, Joseph T. Ambrefe Jr., more than 15 years ago.

That original design, submitted in 2002 and approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2005, was titled "advertising trays for security screening," and it described a "system and device for use in a security area, and more particularly, a rack system and holding device for placing various objects that are processed through a security area." There are renderings of the trays from all angles, plus an overhead diagram of the system itself.

In the original lawsuit filed in 2011, SecurityPoint Holdings (now known as SecurityPoint Media) claimed that in 2006, after the patent had been granted, the TSA's internal documentation warned that there was "no single TSA standard bin return system," and that the process of manually picking up and carrying them back "is known to be a significant injury risk and should be eliminated if possible." By 2009, however, an updated version of the same internal guide spelled out a process for bin return, utilizing "bin carts."

And…that's it. That is the extent of the evidence presented. SecurityPoint cites the "method" listed in the original patent filing as proof of infringement. The steps, listed on the final page of the filing, essentially boil down to putting a cart full of bins near the entrance of the belt; putting an empty cart near the end of the belt; and switching carts when the first bin is empty and the second bin is full.

In relief, SecurityPoint asked for damages, interest, and attorney's fees, which at one point during the trial totaled $618 million. While the TSA countered with a lump sum payout of $12.6 million, Judge Eric Bruggink handed down a judgment of more than $103 million against the TSA—a loss that will, of course, be absorbed by taxpayers.

In fairness to SecurityPoint and founder Ambrefe, trial testimony revealed that the TSA had in fact initially agreed to test out the system in 2005. Ambrefe offered the license to use his patented method, in exchange for the exclusive right to advertise on the trays (in fact, the company currently offers graphical signage and advertising, including in the bottom of airport security trays). The TSA admitted that despite successful tests, it declined Ambrefe's offer, yet used a variation on his method in certain airports at least as far back as 2008. Indeed, the judge stipulated that SecurityPoint could be entitled to further compensation through earned interest, based on the amount of time since the lawsuit was first filed.

Ambrefe may be completely sincere—indeed, every patent he has filed somehow pertains to the airport security screening process—but unfortunately, this case has all the hallmarks of a patent troll.

Typically, a patent troll is an individual or company that buys up vaguely-worded patents and files* patent infringement lawsuits against the owners or marketers of existing products or services that even vaguely resemble what the patent covers. Often, megacorporations will buy up dying businesses for access to their portfolios of patents—not out of a desire to innovate, but as a defense against competitors' lawsuits. Unlike most patent trolls, Ambrefe did in fact invent and patent the intellectual property at issue in his case, but the criteria the court used to find in his favor was every bit as strained.

In fact, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed an amicus brief in 2016 after the court affirmed the validity of SecurityPoint's original patent, making the claim that it should have been rendered invalid under the doctrine of obviousness, in which an invention may not be patented if it "would have been obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the relevant art at the time the patent was sought." While the judge was ultimately not swayed, the fact remains that the "technology" at issue was a pair of rolling carts and a series of stackable bins, and instruction to rotate their positions at appropriate intervals.

The EFF did concede that although SecurityPoint "had developed a good system for managing trays and carts within the confined space of an airport security checkpoint," the claims made within the suit "are far broader than any specific solution," and risk crowding out any future inventors whose creations are different, though not quite different enough. Laws regarding intellectual property are designed to stimulate people's creativity by incentivizing innovation, namely through the financial reward of being the only one who is allowed to sell your product. Interpreted too broadly, however, those same laws can create headaches for other innovators, or even people who behave in a manner too similar to a patented methodology and risk running afoul. The TSA may indeed have erred by not compensating Ambrefe at the outset, but that mistake should not cost taxpayers $100 million.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to copyright infringement rather than patent infringement.

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  1. Up next is Buttplug suing them over children body cavity search trademark infringement.

    1. Digital rape is clearly prior art.

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  2. Patents are not copyrights. The article title is in error. This story is about patents, not copyrights. It's still a stupid ruling, but it's not copyrights.

    1. More evidence that Reason writers must not write their own blog post titles.

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    2. It appears they have updated the headline.

    3. IDK that the ruling is anywhere near as stupid as this coverage. THREE things:
      1) It appears that part of the reason that the patent was issued was related to the method of advertising on the trays, not merely (as Reason describes it) "a pair of rolling carts and a series of stackable bins, and instruction to rotate their positions at appropriate intervals."
      2) More importantly, it appears that the US Government/TSA admitted that it infringed the patent -- "On June 6, 2013 the parties executed a second stipulation. In it, defendant conceded that it had infringed the ‘460 patent'"
      3) TSA apparently entered into an MOU with airports that had the effect of foreclosing SecurityPoint Holdings from being able to continue its existing agreements with individual airports using its system -- at no cost to the airports (SecurityPoint Holdings sought to make money on advertising fees, which it shared with the airports). After foreclosing SecurityPoint Holdings existing agreements with airports, TSA admitted it then infringed SecurityPoint Holdings patent!

  3. "would have been obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the relevant art at the time the patent was sought.

    Guessing TSA lost since they don't have any skills let alobe ordinary ones.

  4. And…that's it. That is the extent of the evidence presented. SecurityPoint cites the "method" listed in the original patent filing as proof of infringement.

    The solution here is obvious. We have to disestablish the TSA.

  5. I suspect there are more than $100 million in various political campaign funds, how about we try out the "wealth tax" concept on them to pay the fines, and then eliminate TSA to prevent future damages?
    It will save one child.

  6. I’m skeptical the facts are as presented here. A red flag that the author might be clueless: “This case has ALL (emphasis added) the hallmarks of a patent troll…. Unlike most patent trolls Ambrefe did in fact invent and patent the Intellectual Property at issue in this case….”

  7. I’m skeptical the facts are as presented here. A red flag that the author might be clueless: “This case has all the hallmarks of a patent troll…. NUnlike most patent trolls Ambrefe did in fact Invent and patent the Intellectual Property at issue in this case….”

    1. It was so egregious I posted it twice!

      1. Boy, you can say that again!

      2. I will post twice too, and note that "you can't triple stamp a double stamp"

        IDK that the ruling is anywhere near as stupid as this coverage. THREE things:
        1) It appears that part of the reason that the patent was issued was related to the method of advertising on the trays, not merely (as Reason describes it) "a pair of rolling carts and a series of stackable bins, and instruction to rotate their positions at appropriate intervals."
        2) More importantly, it appears that the US Government/TSA admitted that it infringed the patent -- "On June 6, 2013 the parties executed a second stipulation. In it, defendant conceded that it had infringed the ‘460 patent'"
        3) TSA apparently entered into an MOU with airports that had the effect of foreclosing SecurityPoint Holdings from being able to continue its existing agreements with individual airports using its system -- at no cost to the airports (SecurityPoint Holdings sought to make money on advertising fees, which it shared with the airports). After foreclosing SecurityPoint Holdings existing agreements with airports, TSA admitted it then infringed SecurityPoint Holdings patent!

  8. defund TSA!

  9. Patient law has grown as oppressive as Gov Oppression itself.

    INTENT should be the #1 factor of ALL patient infringement cases; if the plaintiff's cannot PROVE beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants STOLE the very design the case should be thrown out.

    And 15-years? They should all expire in less time. If your "brilliance" can't make enough money to support itself in under 15-years the 'design' or responsibility for that design ain't so great anyways. Using Gov-Guns and squatting on common-sense isn't "brilliance" it's crookery.

    1. Patents and copyrights shouldn't expire at all.

      1. Sure, sure; so every discovery can be monopolized and held hostage by the POWER of one person and the force of the entire nations Gov-Guns? And if someone else discovers the same thing?

      2. One day CE needs to work underneath his car. He can't find the wheel block he bought at Autozone so he grabs a split log off the woodpile and uses that.

        Shortly afterward a young man shows up with his lawyer. They explain that back in 1896 the man's great-great-grandfather discovered that a car with an internal combustion engine could be prevented from rolling using a split log. $1200 plus interest and legal fees, but the good news is that $1200 buys you a license to use his invention for a whole year. On one specific VIN number with one specific photographically identified log.

        Nah, I don't want live in that world.

        1. PS The young man is not greedy. Out of that $1200 he has pay $1100 to license prior art used by his invention: the guy who discovered a split log could prevent a wheeled vehicle from rolling, and the guy who discovered that logs could be split.

    2. I would go for a milder version of what you propose that's both milder and stronger: if the defendant can show with a preponderance of evidence that they came up with idea independently, they're off the hook. Furthermore, the fact that they came up with it independently creates a presumption for future cases that the invention was "obvious" in the patent sense.

      1. Eh, still waiting for that edit function.

        1. Invent one.

          1. Most of Invention is being oppressed by previous locking/monopolizing of B.S. invention patenting. As if no-one but a single person could think up shopping baskets..

            I pretty jaded on this subject. The last company I worked for wanted to patent EVERYTHING they could think of. We'd have potato chips for lunch and some B.S. executive would want to patent eating potato chips for lunch. Ya; it really was that crazy stupid.

          2. Oh; lol... invent an edit function - I need to stop skim reading.
            Maybe reason didn't want to buy the 'edit' function patient rights? lol... 🙂

  10. I always assumed they just went down to the Walmart and bought a plastic dishpan then gave it to their brother-in-law and said, "Here, make a bunch of these and we'll pay you 75 dollars apiece for them and then you give us back half the money and we'll both get rich."

  11. They should have gone on Shark Tank.
    "I don't see anything proprietary here" would have been the investor advice.

    1. Why go to the shark tank when you can go to the goldfish bowl of government and get paid millions for a plastic bin they sell at Ikea.

  12. End intellectual property now.

  13. Under Article I, section 8, it reads, “Congress shall have power… to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for !!!!---limited times---!!!!! to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

    - And a good read on it
    During this time, however, Jefferson was not keen on granting copyrights and patents, as he saw them as a means of certain individuals or businesses to create monopolies. This is despite him being an inventor and writer, himself. In fact, neither Jefferson nor his fellow founding fatherBenjamin Franklin, also a renowned inventor and writer, never themselves, sought patents or copyrights. In fact, Franklin stated in his autobiography, “as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

    A few years later in 1789, Jefferson seemed to have changed his tune a bit on the subject of copyrights and patents. It was at this time that Jefferson wrote to James Madison, suggesting that an article be added to the Bill of Rights, providing terms limits on intellectual property. In his letter, he stated, “monopolies may be allowed to persons for their own productions in literature, and their own inventions in the arts, for a term of not exceeding ___ years, but for no longer term and for no other purpose…”

  14. What we need is a functional patent office. There is no way such a simple and trivial action should be patented. The concept has been used for decades or centuries with shopping baskets.

    1. The USPTO may have developed the same attitude about originality that many legislators have developed about constitutionality.

      They figure it's the court system's job to make the call, and there's no penalty for being wrong.

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