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

On Friday, August’s opinion by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims was released. It sided with Transportation Security Administration in a case that could result in taxpayers paying more than $100 millions.

Anyone who has ever flown commercially knows the horrors of the checkpoint.

It turns out that this process can be more difficult than people think. SecurityPoint Holdings was the prevailing firm. They claimed that TSA’s stackable trays were illegally copied from a patent Joseph T. Ambrefe Jr. patented over 15 years ago.

This original design was filed in 2002 and was approved by U.S. Patent and Trademark Office 2005. The title of the device was “advertising trays security screening.” It described a “system and device to use in a secure area and, more specifically, a rack and holding device for placing different objects through a secured area. The overhead diagram shows the entire system, as well as renderings from various angles.

SecurityPoint Holdings, now SecurityPoint Media, claimed in the 2011 original lawsuit that after the patent was granted in 2006 the TSA’s internal documents warned that “there is no single TSA standard system for returning bins” and that manually picking them up and transporting them back to the TSA “is known be a serious injury risk, and should be avoided if at all possible.” An updated version of this internal guide, which was issued in 2009, described the process for bin returns using “bin bags.”

And…that’s it. This is all the evidence that was presented. SecurityPoint points to SecurityPoint’s “method” in its original patent application as proof that it is infringing. The filing’s final page lists the steps. They involve placing a cart containing bins close to the belt, and then putting an empty one near the end. Finally, switching between carts when either the bin is empty or full.

SecurityPoint requested damages and interest as well as attorney’s fee relief. The total amount reached $618 millions at one stage during the trial. TSA responded with $12.6 million in lump sum, but Judge Eric Bruggink rendered a verdict of over $103,000,000 against the TSA—a loss that will, of course, be absorbed by taxpayers.

SecurityPoint founder Ambrefe is fair to the fact that they initially tested the system back in 2005. Ambrefe granted Ambrefe the right to market his method in return for the sole rights to place advertising on the tray (in reality, Ambrefe offers both graphical signage as well as advertising in airport security trays). Although the TSA acknowledged that it had failed to test Ambrefe’s method, they did use a modified version of his technique in some airports, at least back in 2008. SecurityPoint might be entitled, as the judge stated. Continue reading Based on how long it has been since the original lawsuit was filed, earned interest can be used to compensate.

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.

A patent troll, or an individual or business that purchases vaguely-worded Patents to file copyright infringement lawsuits or against marketers or owners of products and services that are even vaguely similar to the patent’s scope, is a person or entity that buys patents. 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. Ambrefe was in fact the inventor and patentee of the intellectual property involved in this case. But the criteria used by the court to determine his favor were every bit as complicated.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), filed an actual application. AmicusAfter SecurityPoint’s initial patent was declared valid, the court dismissed SecurityPoint’s claim it had to be made invalid. The doctrine of obviousness states that an invention can not be patented when it has “w.”It would have been apparent to someone having Ordinary skill in the art relevant at the time of the patent It was requested.” The judge refused to rule, but it is clear that the technology at issue was a pair a rolling carts and several stackable bins. They were also instructed to rotate at regular intervals.

While SecurityPoint did admit that they had created a “good system to manage trays/carts in the limited space of an airport security screening checkpoint”, the EFF stated that the lawsuit’s claims “are much wider than any particular solution” and could lead to the exclusion of any new inventors with similar inventions. There is enough Intellectual property laws are intended to incentivize creativity through financial rewards. These laws, when interpreted in too broad a sense, can lead to headaches for innovators and others who use the same patented methods. Although the TSA did make a mistake in not compensating Ambrefe, it should not have cost taxpayers $100 millions.