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Thu, Dec 30, 2010

Aero-News Alert: Threats Made Over FlightPrep Coverage

Tempers Appear High Where This Story Is Concerned

News/Analysis By ANN Editor-In-Chief Jim Campbell (Still Alive and Kicking)

I hardly know where to begin with this story... because so much of it is just plain stupid... and ultimately, very disappointing to those of us who know that most of the aviation world is populated by great folks with solid ethics and standards. But... this story is not going to be about them.

Late Tuesday, December 21st, and followed a few hours later in the wee hours of the morning of December 22nd, we received threatening emails from a person calling himself Dave Merril. The email was pretty nasty... pretty much threatening to ruin our Christmas/business/lives via all kinds of threats and mis-deeds because of our FlightPrep coverage. The combined emails were long-winded, closely parroted the claims and positions of FlightPrep's public statements and blog entries, and were fairly ugly. We've seen this kind of thing before, over the course of a number of decades... when people who don't like the facts we uncover in a story decide that attacking the messenger will make things all better... and like all such attempts over the course of those decades, we do not back down to threats, intimidation and cyber-terrorism. In the very early hours (before dawn) following these emails, we received a phone call from an "Unknown" number that further continued the threats... to my company, my staff and my life... and cited all the 'dirt' they had on me and the horrible things they were going to do unless I shut up and let FlightPrep off the hook... even bragging about where some of this info was obtained from (an interesting cast of unsavory characters -- including the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In -- which didn't remotely surprise me) and who was helping them -- the caller sounded like a lunatic, and I did not suffer the ravings for long before doing what the situation warranted.

I hung up and went back to sleep.

A day later, I received a number of communications from people who had been contacted by 'Dave Merril' via email. They received an extensive email excoriating me, praising Avweb and GA News (who apparently did kinder/gentler stories more to the liking of this attacker), and attempting to make a case for FlightPrep's actions... again using the same general language and reasoning we had seen in various FlightPrep communications and publications. It wasn't a very nice email and its pretty clear he didn't like me and wanted to damage ANN and I... but the mailing raised one particular question early on... why was he sending this email to the people listed in the 'cc' list (this nutball apparently didn't have the requisite intelligence to blind-carbon-copy or 'bcc' the addresses he was sending to and had instead 'CC'ed' everyone)? From all those who contacted me to let me know of the personal attacks and the rest of the email, one trend became evident right away. Without a single exception, each of the persons on the hatemail list (of those that reported back to ANN or to others asking the same questions), reported that they had sent protest/complaint emails to FlightPrep directly... and that this became the only uniformly correlating factor that was common to all those from which we received such data. It didn't take a rocket scientist to suspect that FlightPrep, or someone with extensive access to their email communication, could be a part of the threat.

I was pleased to see that those who forwarded the results of the extortion threat appreciated the work we had done on this story and seemed rather nonplussed and less than influenced by the ravings of Mr. Merril... and was deeply touched by those who took the time to express appreciation for the fact that we seemed to be "the only news organization left in aviation that seems to give a damn about the truth anymore."

That said, we looked over the Merril emails to see what info might be gleaned and what might be done about the matter as we prepared to collect all the info and deliver it to Federal Law Enforcement. Merril seemed to be incredibly defensive where FlightPrep was concerned, and devoted thousands of words (in total) to trying to make a case for why ANN should shut up and the rest of the industry (those that had shown displeasure with how Flight Prep was conducting its patent affairs) should change its mind and embrace FlightPrep's rationale for their recent decisions to seek compensation from a number of online flight planning web sites.

A number of the parties that received Merril's venomous email didn't seem to take Merril's hint and drew their own conclusions from the manner and method of the hatemail.

'Todd A' sent this to ANN along with the Merril attack email...
"Fact: My favorite site, NavMonster, which I loved because it had a great METAR/TAF translater that I could use on my mobile phone, is shut down due to the litigious environment.
Fact: Flight Prep seems to think it's OK to attack the messenger if they don't like the message.
Fact: Flight Prep seems to think it's OK to share my e-mail address with the world.
Sometimes your best customer is the one who tells you as they see it.  I told flight prep that just because they had a patent didn't mean their product and tactics didn't suck !  
I'm telling aero-news that your doing a great job.  Keep up the fight. 
Keep up the hard work."

'E.G.' forwarded the hatemail as well with the following comments:
"Others have probably forwarded this email to you, but I wanted to be sure that you saw it. This email was sent to what appears to be a list of individuals that have emailed FlightPrep with their dissenting opinion of FlightPrep's 'patent'. The sending email address has been proven to be bogus. It should take very little investigation to determine that the author of this email is either Stenbock,  Everson or their lawsuit-phobic attorney."

'Beau H' seemed to be rather upset to be included in the Merril attack and responded directly to the Merril threat (while the Merril address remained active):
"Dave, I don't know who you are, but if I had the time to research it I would find you are connected to FlightPrep. How did you get my email?  How do you know if I have written about this subject?  Wow that was easy to read you dumb ass. See it's this kind of crap you guys are pulling and then wonder why your the bad guys!  Nicely written email and almost convincing. I am going to send my response and your attached email to every blog and aircraft owners forum and let them be the judge. The real problem is not that you have a patent, you have an inferior product!  The people who have superior products are being forced out or have to pay your hostage demands.   Why don't you guys make a better product then sell it!
FACT: No one but myself knows that I sent a email to apparently. The only way you would know is if:
A. You are apparently
Or
B. apparently forwarded my email without my permission.
Either way it's wrong. Just like the way you are treating Navmonster and the others. You have now made this personal with me and I intend fight you at every corner. Be sure to check out all the airplane owners sites."

Beau also told ANN that, "Jim, there is no question what happened to me and the other 13 people copied on the email. Just hours earlier I had gone to FlightPrep's site and sent a flaming email to them. All of the other recipients fired back at this guy as we KNOW he had to be with  flight prep. I for one KNOW FOR 100% positive NO one knew I wrote that email to FlightPrep not even my wife, and you can quote, print, fly a banner around on that. Dave Merril the supposed author of the email actually responded to my first 2 emails. If you would like I can forward those conversations. The first one he basically threatens me and the last tells me to have a nice life..."

'Eric B' not only refuted Merril but corresponded with a number of the other recipients of this email assault: 
"To those on this email list: Clearly this is a manipulation of information by FlightPrep, or someone on their behalf hired to do PR damage control. With your help, let's use deductive reasoning and find the culprit and expose them for what they truly are.

Facts: Just merely hours ago prior to receiving the email from "Dave Merril" I had gone to a site called: http://boycottflightprep.com/ that was in my local aviation email newsgroup list. There I made a comment posting & it asks for an email. However, I didn't put in my regular email, but a secondary one used to thwart this type of stuff. This is the one "Dave Merril" sent this email too. However, I didn't stop there, I also went to this site and used the same email: http://www.stenbock.com/ to complain directly to Mr. Stenbock. Of course I still didn't stop there, I also used the phone and left a message at (503) 678 - 4360, which i found nearly grayed out on the bottom of the contact page of the flight prep website.

So: given that information and the information of the group, it ought to be clear how & who got our emails"

'Colin S' was a man after our own heart, who not only took offense to Merril's attack-gram, but decided to tell him (again, before the email address went 'Tango-Uniform') where he was wrong... in no small detail:
"Dave, In the future, I would suggest using the blind-cc option to hide the recipient list. As far as I know, the only place where I used this email address in connection with FlightPrep was in sending two private email messages directly TO FlightPrep. So I assume they gave you this list. And, judging from your arguments, they put you up to this. You are on a fool's errand. If you are a real person I would suggest sending a retraction to the same list. Or at least something that identifies you as working for FlightPrep or their law firm.

Since you were attacking Jim Campbell, I've included him on this message and attached the full text of your original email below my message. Your attack is known as ad hominem, you are attacking the man as if that is meaningful in the argument. It isn't. (I am being condescending here, which means "to talk down to.") I believe your mention of mental illness, whether it is true or not, is really despicable, the sort of action which instantly marks the rest of your message as desperate and manipulative. I hope Mr. Campbell publishes your mail as soon as he figures out who you are and who you work for. (He is welcome to publish any portion of my reply to you, or my whole message in its entirety. He can publish YOUR message since it is my mail, my possession. Look up the case law.)"

Colin ripped Merril up pretty well... and a long letter pretty much cut him off at the knees and, frankly, made my day. I was glad to see I wasn't the only guy who delighted in showing such errant folks just how moronic they were acting.

As noted, Merril parroted FlightPrep's many published defenses and editorializing... claiming, for instance, that, "FlightPrep did not shut down any web site - in fact they offered a free license in writing to RunwayFinder finder during negotiation."

Merril's statement is flawed and false. We have seen some of the correspondence that was sent by FlightPrep counsel to RunwayFinder's Dave Parsons and there is a clear desire to shut down the site if a settlement was not reached... and at one point, complains that (following an apparent verbal conversation assuring same) he hadn't done so, yet. Face it, folks... the threat of legal action via the assertion that you are breaching someone's Intellectual Property/Patent is not a friendly act and one has but a few solutions to stay out of trouble... including shutting down the 'offending' activity.

Merril also goofed, big-time in asserting that, "FlightPrep did not demand or ask for 3.5 million in damages - this
is all Internet rot, I've not seen a single document that supports this - but everyone believes it." There is a document that supports the multi-million dollar damage claim... and we have it.

At one point in a letter dated December 9th, 2010, FlightPrep counsel Joseph Mohr notes, "Let us be clear, stopping future infringement is essential, but past damages must also be discussed and resolved. While we appreciate your offer to shut down the website to stop future infringement, we notice that your website is still operation. And without further information from you, our only means to assess the potential damages is the observation that your website had 22,256 unique visitors in July 2010. Each visit represents a potential lost sale of our client’s patented invention at $149 per sale. This damage calculation exceeds $3.2 million per month in lost revenue."

With the establishment of a potential and massive damage claim, there is no question that this is a number that FlightPrep intended to use to seek RunwayFinder's agreement to some sort of licensing agreement. It is an effective weapon... and it should scare anyone that may be subject to such a claim... though we find the reasoning implied in Mohr's letter to be a bit 'over the top.' If ANYONE, ANYWHERE has the requisite skills/knowledge/expertise to be able to get a 100% conversion rate between site visits and unit sales, the last thing they need to be worrying about is some silly and comparatively worthless patent... 

So... where do we stand on all this? We have and are still working to see this matter reach the right criminal authorities and intend to see the matter prosecuted, if possible. While stuff like this didn't get a lot of attention in years gone by because of a lack of expertise on the part of Law Enforcement, these are much better informed times... and the cops are likewise. We'd love to see 'Dave Merril' properly identified, prosecuted and jailed.

Still; as anyone who has followed ANN or my previous efforts should know, I do not back down, I will not be black mailed and I don't scare easily. NEVER have I once backed down on a story for fear of such nonsense and its way too late to change my stripes now.

We have no certain answers as to who did this or whether the actions were perpetrated by FlightPrep... who (through their attorney) deny all knowledge of this matter... but the evidence is pretty damning. Unless I am mistaken, someone with access to FlightPrep's email seems to have been involved in this matter -- though, as hard as it may be to believe, their mail could have been hacked. Still; when you add this to the steps that FlightPrep has taken to distance itself from negative comments/press and the fact that critical comments on the FlightPrep FaceBook page have been scrubbed, one sees all manner of correlating behaviors in these various actions. FlightPrep does not seem to take criticism very well... or kindly.

Further; the industry reaction continues to be more negative by the day and it has been years since we have seen this kind of aero-community activism. The 'Boycott FlightPrep' site is pushing 1000 signatories to its online petition efforts and the web, twitter and forum traffic on this subject is overwhelmingly anti-FlightPrep. They have to be feeling pretty desperate at this point because the damage their patent assaults have done their business interests may turn out to be fatal. I have heard from hundreds of people who either won't do business with them, have canceled business involving them and/or have banned the use of their products where they had the influence to do so. I do not think that FlightPrep can survive for long if this trend continues...

If I was FlightPrep, I'd back down from all the threats, get rid of their delusions of patent grandeur and seriously look at issuing the Monster Mea Culpa of all time and then simply plead insanity. Maybe 'Dave Merril' can help them with that... pleading insanity seems to be the one gig for which he has firmly established his credentials.

Next: There are larger issues here at play... and they are ponderous matters that we have battled for well over three decades in our efforts as aviation journalists and advocates... we've worked long and hard to tell the truth, gotten pretty badly bruised/mangled/harassed and belittled in the process, and never failed to look behind the scenes at the "Bravo-Sierra' that gets shoveled our way... and yet, with one of our most staggering such stories (nearly done and awaiting the obligatory legal sign-off) under way right now (involving a GA Manufacturer that appears to have been playing fast and loose with the truth for WAY too long -- and at GREAT risk to many of our friends in aviation), we know that it may not be the popular thing to do... but it is the right thing to do...

We've always been about letting you all know when the Emperor has made an errant fashion statement. Which leads us to the ultimate question (and the probable title for my next editorial) -- have we gotten to the point where all that's left to aviation journalism (outside of ANN, anyway) is balancing -- "What Will We Stand For v. What Will We Fall For?"

Hmmmm.... more to follow (as always). 

FMI: www.RunwayFinder.com, www.boycottflightprep.com, www.navmonster.com, www.flightprep.com

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