Patent Spat Leaves DJI Owing Textron $279M

Patents are the murky waters where technical jargon and legalese meet, and in this vast grey area of interpretation, DJI now owes Textron $279M.

At issue in the case were two patents issued to Textron (#8,014,909 and #9,162,752) regarding aircraft control systems for relative positioning to other vehicles and automatic hovering. The jury found that Textron’s intellectual property (IP) had been infringed and that damages amounted to $279M. DJI asserts that Textron’s patents are not valid and will appeal the decision. Appeals in patent trials are handled by the Federal Circuit and can be kicked up to the US Supreme Court, so don’t expect a final decision in the case anytime soon.

We’re not lawyers, so we won’t comment on the merits of the case, but, while it was a jury trial, it was one of many cases decided in the court of Judge Alan Albright, who has been the focus of scrutiny despite efforts to assign fewer cases to his docket amid wider efforts to stymie venue shopping in patent cases. Despite these efforts, the Western District of Texas is such a popular venue for patent cases that Berkeley offers a CEU on going to trial in Waco.

If you’re curious about more IP shenanigans, checkout the Honda mass takedown, the legality of making something similar, or why E3D patents some of their work.

46 thoughts on “Patent Spat Leaves DJI Owing Textron $279M

      1. The key drivers and market share protection and potential damages recovery. In many ways accusing open source products is easier than proprietary ones. Source code is already available for review and sellers/manufacturers are more readily identifiable. Can you say cookie cutter?

  1. This is an excellent example of the supidity of the current patent system.

    It’s just putting some standard sensors on your gadget and doing some basic control theory. Things like that should not be patentable at all. Things like this get invented all the time when the need for such a system arises. If someone with a “need” talks to an “engineer”, then this is drawn on the back of an envelope in 5 minutes. History is chock full with the same inventions that are invented at the same time by different people. A lot of them just get invented because the time for the invention it has arrived.

    I am not entirely against patents, Some things take a lot of time, design effort and resources to develop and patents can be useful here to give the “inventor” a chance to recoup that investment.

    In the current system, any idiot can patent an “invention” as long as he is willing to pay something like USD10.000. The patent office is happy to get the money, like almost anyone would be happy to receive a lot of money for a piece of paper without any liability. And this leads to patent trolls and multi mega dollar lawsuits about rectangular boxes with rounded corners.

    The problem here is that the system feeds in on itself. The people who make money from it (such as the patent office) has no incentive to change anything, while people who are damaged by it are powerless to change anything. The rest of the world just shrugs their shoulders, (that is, if they are even aware of the problem).

    In the end it is has just become one of the ways in which products get more expensive and it becomes more difficult to bring new products to the market.

    Due to Albright’s actions, on November 2, 2021, Senators Thom Tillis and Patrick Leahy wrote a bipartisan letter asking Chief Justice John G. Roberts to direct the Judicial Conference of the United States to “conduct a study of actual and potential abuses” that result from an “absence of adequate rules regulating judicial assignment and venue for patent cases within a [single judicial] district.”.[14][15] The letter criticized Albright for having “openly solicited cases at lawyers’ meetings” and for having “repeatedly ignored binding case law and abused his discretion,” noting that Albright’s decisions “resulted in a flood of mandamus petitions” being filed and granted “no fewer than 15 times in just the past two years.”.[15]

    I guess I don’t like that guy, but patent trolls probably adore him.

    1. Notice the failure’s in authority don’t clean up their mess do they? They designed it to be that way. It is a broken system built on graft, corruption, lies and betrayal.

    2. “It’s just putting some standard sensors on your gadget and doing some basic control theory. ”

      And War and Peace is just themes about irrationality of human motives, the limits of leadership, and the search for the meaning of life. No biggie.

      1. “War and Peace is just themes about irrationality of human motives, the limits of leadership, and the search for the meaning of life.”

        Yes, and if someone wrote a book exploring those same themes, and then had to pay the estate of Leo Tolstoy $279M for “stealing” his ideas, that would be evidence of a copyright system as badly broken as the patent system is now.

        1. If anybody who wrote a long winded, awful, unreadable, snooze of a book owed him money, then you’d be on point.

          I’m pretty sure Milton’s heirs would have a better claim. Then there’s Plato.

          Books that nobody would read unless forced to by the guards at their indoctrination center/school. Why Cliff’s notes were invented.

        2. Wouldn’t you say that it is happening with copyrights in music today? And, copyrights can be enforced for far longer than patents.

          “As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.”

          Patents are good for a maximum of about 20 years from filing and require periodic maintenance payments to stay in force.

      2. How would you describe it then? All you need to make a drone hover is an IMU, a sensor fusion algorithm and a way to control the motors (usually PID), it can however be made much more complicated than that but it generally isn’t and generally uses very common sensors and algorithms.

        The point is you shouldn’t be able to patent relatively basic and common concepts. Sure if it is something developed specifically by your company and new and non obvious and not similar to anything else then yes you should be able to protect that for a little while but patenting whole concepts shouldn’t be allowed. There are plenty of things that are patented that shouldn’t be or things that are patented for too long, just look at 3D printing and stratasys, they are known for holding everyone back with patents that should never have been granted.

        1. Yeah,basic patent law says a patent can’t be obvious,bit as someone stated earlier, now somehow patents have been granted for ideas that are both obvious and have prior art… Like a box with rounded corners.

          1. Arguably the rounded corners are not obvious, I think that patent was on G2-continuous corners rather than just tangent arcs. I suspect that the arguments about this indicate just how non-obvious the difference is.

    1. Textron alleged that DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire 2 drones infringed its patents. Textron’s patents relate to a system that allows drones to maintain a constant position relative to another vehicle, such as a car or helicopter.

  2. “ It’s just putting some standard sensors on your gadget and doing some basic control theory”.

    Presumably you’ve not taken the time to actually look at the claims. The ‘909 requires a specific velocity between the drone and another vehicle, and the ‘752 requires switching between two control laws dependent on the behaviour of the drone and the setting of a controller. I’m not saying these patents are valid, and I’m not defending the Patent Office for issuing them, but it’s not advancing the discussion to dis them based on inaccurate hand-waving assertions.

  3. This is why patents should only protect specific implementation and not broad general ideas. Too many patent holders test the system with vaguely nebulous patents in hopes some big company steps on its toes so they can make a big payday.

      1. That is what should happen. Restricting an idea to one company for a long period of time just holds everyone and everything back, advancements can’t be made by anyone else just because of a patent.

        Just look at 3D printing, stratasys has held the industry back with some of its patents particularly around enclosures. Another company even tried to patent a specific range of heatbreak thicknesses, nothing innovative, literally just making the heatbreak walls thinner just to stop other companies from being able to make their heatbreak walls thinner. It is an obvious change by any engineer.

        Patents should either only protect specific implementations of shouldn’t be given for long, like a year at most. Technology moves too fast now to be giving out long term broad patents on concepts.

    1. I heard of a 3D printing company trying to get a patent on specific heatbreak wall thicknesses. The only purpose for that would be to stop their competitors from going any thinner.

      Patents should be much shorter, not like the stratasys enclosure patents, and should have to be limited in scope, not whole concepts.

  4. A basic flight control system as described in the patent is simply a generic control loop that integrates the equations of motion.

    This is fundamental knowledge that is fully derived in any basic textbook on flight dynamics. These are equations derived from classical physics and perfected over the years by the Air Force and NASA.

    I think this highlights the issue, the courts don’t understand the technology that they make judgments on and it costs people millions of dollars.

    1. Patents are only supposed to be for non obvious things but if you have non technical people granting patents then of course it won’t be obvious to them and they will grant a patent for anything just about. The whole patent system needs redone.

  5. Absolutely bonkers, does this mean the rigid patent with specific rights can be twisted to suit whatever the holder wants?.
    Why did this even get to court?, who is really behind the case, is this another attack on China?, so many questions, and absolutely no answers that make any sense at all.
    Is this another apple vs Samsung debacle?

  6. “I don’t like it, so it must be racism!”

    FWIW, that gimmick is very quickly losing its punch. Instead of addressing the poster’s points, you fabricated something to focus your (faux) outrage on.

    1. OP literally claims all of china steals, that every invention in china is stolen from the west. I admit that there’s plenty of that but not ALL. Funny you mention the poster’s POINTS, that was his only point with no proof, just a blatant generalization of an entire race of people. If that isn’t racist then nothing is. Seriously grow tf up.

    1. Try not to be an a$$ as some say … oops too late! You dont get to dictate when someone takes offense to something racially motivated that you say. Try not to be so sensitive yourself!

  7. Whether that is true or not, the article talks about a federal district court judge nominated by the POTUS and confirmed by the United States Senate to a lifetime term, and not a Texas state judge.

  8. Ask Angitua how it feels about the USA obeying global commerce law judgements regards the WTO.
    All governments are dirty, they just pay for good press.
    Move along, nothing to se here… um… China is bad m’kay.

  9. Does it cost $10,000 to get a US patent?
    I recently applied for a UK patent and it was free. I chose to pay £100 for them to do a prior art search for me, though.
    Currently I have a published patent (not granted) which does at least mean that nobody else can patent my idea (though it does not stop them manufacturing it, that would need a granted patent, in their country or where they sell it, which is an entirely different thing)

    The US patent fees structure seems rather more complicated, but does seem to be typically hundreds rather tnan thousands of dollars:

    As for this dispute, It does seem like the case holds up, though there is a strong argument that the patent should not have been granted as “it would have been obvious to the person skilled in the art to arrive at something falling within the terms of the claim”

    1. $10k is a rule of thumb for getting a patent with a lawyer. If you hire a lawyer they will file more than one patient for your idea (because they are competent). 10k$ each.

      Your about to find out why you want a patient lawyer (I suppose you want a patent solicitor). Not going to ruin it for you.

      Patents aren’t simple. You filed it, now you potentially get to go to court over it. Good luck.

      A $100 patent search is useless. That’s just an overpriced keyword search on a DB. Patent searching is a skilled profession. Get ready to hear from all the people who’s prior work your poorly worded patient potentially covers. You’re going to owe them for lawyer bills at least. It’s an industry.

      1. $10k is probably a good first order approximation. Most of that will probably go to the patent draftsman (attorney or agent). The patent office fees for novice inventors are heavily discounted (as low as $364 as far as I can tell), but not $100.

        Patent attorney/agents are highly recommended for preparing the patent application and seeing it through the patent office process. I’m not saying someone with a lot of exposure to patents and patent prosecution (e.g. a senior patent prosecution paralegal with presumed technical knowledge) can’t do it for him or herself, but it would, IMHO, still be an uphill battle in most, or even a gross majority of cases.

        For litigation, a patent litigator is, IMHO, necessary, and cousin Vinny won’t cut it. It doesn’t need to be a white-shoe firm, but if the infringement allegation needs to go to trial someone very familiar with patent litigation (admitted to the relevant federal district court) and increasingly at inter-partes examinations would definitely help.

          1. UK GDP ~3 trillion USD, US GDP ~23 trillion USD. Assuming that patent protection scales with the size of the economy (a common patent valuation proposition), US patents are worth about a magnitude more than UK patents. Just saying.

            Many troll patents start out as non-viable commercially only to be exploited by creative enforcers. From an enforcement perspective a “good” patent is one vague enough to be stretched onto just about anything, and a “bad” patent is one that teaches the public a lot and claims very little for the patent holder. That stands in stark contrast to what an engineer or a scientist may consider a good patent, essentially an easily reproducible research paper.

  10. I would argue that the 909 patent requires a signal from a vehicle to the aircraft, and that the follow me mode is sending a signal from a cell phone to the aircraft. A cell phone is not a vehicle. Assuming that they (DJI) is unable to provide prior art from before 2004.

    For 752 we would need to read the patent to determine what first and second flight envelopes are. DJI should probably claim that the user’s joystick is controlling the drone and when the joystick is upright the drone stops moving. As opposed to the aircraft detecting that it is moving in a second envelope and then holds position. When I release the stick on my HolyStone drone it swings back and forth and slowly settles to a hovering position. That doesn’t appear as if the drone activates hold after first slowing down to a second flight speed envelope. Having a joystick that controls the aircraft position relative to the ground doesn’t sound like the same thing. (But I didn’t read the whole patent nor research all the prior art). I would think that remote helicopter control from an RC helicopter or airplane in the 80’s would make patenting a remote joystick to control a drone hard to patent. Having a deadband on a Joystick for which any move command is ignored is common in robotics and gaming. Our robotics team was donated a 20 year old bomb squad robot that doesn’t move until you significantly move the Joystick. It has tethered and wireless controllers.

    There is a significant difference between controlling a massive Bell Helicopter and tiny DJI drone such that DJI should be able to show that they are not violating the patent claims. To avoid crashing the Bell Helicopter probably needed to slow down prior to engaging any hold and hover features.

    1. I don’t see where the cell phone comes into the picture. It appears that DJI did not have a problem with the term “vehicle” as it does not appear that anyone asked the court to construe that term.

      Alas, it’s somewhat too late for such Monday-morning quarterbacking as the Fed Circuit only reviews errors of law, not fact (except that some errors of fact may be so manifest as to rise to the level of errors of law). In any case, a party would generally have had to first raise these issues during trial.

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