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Toyota Prius Under Fire For Patent Infringement 504

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the not-so-fast dept.
tekiegreg writes "According to Auto Service World, Toyota (and possibly other hybrid companies) are guilty of violating a patent with their Prius hybrid Systems. The patent in particular looks like it covers most of how the drive-train and even the braking system of a Toyota Prius functions. The implications of which are big if there is no deal or settlement made (such as ceasing of hybrid vehicles in the United States)."
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Toyota Prius Under Fire For Patent Infringement

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  • by No Such Agency (136681) <abmackay@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Friday January 13, 2006 @08:39AM (#14462474)
    Man, people who deliberately use "submarine patents" to try and make money off a popular technology really bug me. As do "technology companies" whose sole business model is to own patents. They wait and see, and if the tech becomes successful, they pounce. If it flops they stay away and let the infringer take the loss.

    I respect the rights of patent owners, and I'm not sure how you could legally sanction this berhaviour without harming patent holders' legitimate rights, but the practice is just plain sleazy.

    Now it may be that they have had suit against Toyota ever since the hybrid came on the market, and this is just a recent expansion of that suit, in which case they are not being weasels...
  • Re:good patent? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by RichMeatyTaste (519596) on Friday January 13, 2006 @08:55AM (#14462525)
    FYI: I'm not defending all patents.

    That being said: where do you think R&D money comes from?

    Once example: You do realize that developing new medicines costs a crapload of money right? You do realize that companies who develop medicines depend on patents to guarantee that it cannot be copied so they can make more money and make more medicines right? Thankfully, the patents expire and the drugs become generics, bringing costs down.

    R&D costs money, plain and simple. One day maybe we will adopt the Star Trek method (everyone works for the common good) but I just don't see it happening in my lifetime. Hell I would do it if everyone else would!
  • Limited problem (Score:5, Insightful)

    by overshoot (39700) on Friday January 13, 2006 @08:56AM (#14462529)
    It also expires in three years.

    This actually looks like a reasonable patent -- the inventor did come up with a reasonably novel approach to getting decent efficiency out of electric motors under varying load conditions, and published it via the patent system long ago.

    The auto companies pay plenty in patent royalties every year, and if they'd negotiated terms before using this (which may well be tracable to their designs) then I doubt they'd have had to pay much. They may not have to pay all that much now, hard to say.

  • Re:/tin hat (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 13, 2006 @08:57AM (#14462532)
    I don't know why you got modded funny. It should be a well know fact (especially to /.ers) that OPEC buys up every alternative energy/locomotion patent it can get its hands on, and then calls it "Research".

    I'm gonna go research a Mountain Dew...
  • Re:good patent? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by giorgiofr (887762) on Friday January 13, 2006 @09:02AM (#14462557)
    Developing new medicines costs a lot because of the high barrier to entry imposed by the gov't with the loads of regulation that it's forcing on the market. If such market (and all other) were deregulated, costs would plummet. But hey, regulation is so good - otherwise, how would you stop teh 3vil capital1s7 haX0rz from 0wnzor1^H^H^H^H^H?H^H'sploiting the proletarians?
  • by The OPTiCIAN (8190) on Friday January 13, 2006 @09:06AM (#14462569)
    Thank heavens we have those patents to encourage innovation. The invention would never have happened otherwise.
  • by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Friday January 13, 2006 @09:10AM (#14462584)
    All Toyota has to do is set 1% of its lawyers to work to overturn the patent. The patent office will let you patent most anything-- they do very little search for no-nos like prior art, prior disclosure, or the many other details that can invalidate a patent.

    Electric braking and planetary transmissions have bveen around for about a century-- there's probably 1,000 prior patents and prior art in that genre.

    With just a preliminary survey like that, Toyota can have a mighty strong negotiating position with the new patent holders. Like "here's $23,000, take it or have to spend about $5 million defending your patent."

  • by syslog (535048) <naeem.bari@cc> on Friday January 13, 2006 @09:10AM (#14462587)
    Who would buy the company if the patents that made it supposedly successful were not applicable upon purchase?

    Mind you, I *am* against the current patent system, I just don't think your suggestion would fly ;)

    -naeem

  • by panthro (552708) <mavrinac@gmailPASCAL.com minus language> on Friday January 13, 2006 @09:18AM (#14462617) Homepage

    Do you work for Ford?

  • Re:The patent (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Inspector Lopez (466767) on Friday January 13, 2006 @09:24AM (#14462644) Journal
    ... however, this "constantly engaged planetary gear" has exactly the same function as a conventional differential, which connects a drive shaft to two wheels, permitting the wheels to spin at different speeds (particularly useful for cornering). In fact, this is mentioned within the patent text. The only difference is that this planetary gear assembly is coaxial.

    I'm a little puzzled by the timing of this suit, which has emerged a full five years after Prius models have been available, and I don't think it was particularly secret that they were developing hybrid vehicles before 2000. (I own a 2000 model myself.) Did Solomon forget they had this patent? Wouldn't the doctrine of laches apply here? http://www.lectlaw.com/def/l056.htm [lectlaw.com].

    Even in 1990 (when the patent was issued) wouldn't a gear assembly like this have been obvious to any knowledgable practitioner of the art?
  • Re:good patent? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Znork (31774) on Friday January 13, 2006 @09:32AM (#14462678)
    "You do realize that companies who develop medicines depend on patents to guarantee that it cannot be copied so they can make more money and make more medicines right?"

    The vast majority, more than 80%, of the patent generated revenues in the pharm industry does not go to R&D. It goes to marketing, administration and comparatively horridly inefficient production. Take a look at any pharmaceuticals financial reports some time.

    You do realize that we'd get five times the current amount of R&D if we simply paid for it outright? Or the same amount of R&D for a fifth of the cost? And that's being generous and not counting the likelyhood that a large part of the R&D is comparatively inefficient due to decades of monopoly protection.

    You do realize that state-granted monopoly rights is one of the most inefficient ways to generate financial incentives conceivable?
  • by dotwaffle (610149) <slashdot@walster.oLISPrg minus language> on Friday January 13, 2006 @09:35AM (#14462699) Homepage
    As a UK citizen, I'm unfamiliar with US law - how long does a US patent last? I assumed it was 5 years, considering this patent was filed in 1991 (if I read correctly) it must be at least 15 years monopoly - something that seams completely unfair to the progression of business...

    Maybe the US (and indeed most countries) need to re-evaluate the law pertaining to patent law, what it was created for, and what it should cover today. Also, copyright law needs looking at - I'm pretty disgusted with the UK version as it stands, I'm sure the US has an equally if not worse one. 25 years or death plus 5 years sounds fair. After then, it doesn't mean no-one owns it, it means everyone owns it, surely?
  • by joepeg (87984) on Friday January 13, 2006 @10:06AM (#14462901)
    I don't think that reward should _ever_ be a monopoly grant.

    If a temporary monopoly was not granted, the inventor would be completely buried by large corporations IMMEDIATELY. If a poor man invents a great product, but has no resources to develop and manufacture and sell it, a temporary monopoly allows for him to attempt to gather these resources so that he can benefit from his efforts. Otherwise, as soon as GIANT CORPORATION X gets wind of it, they have the product on the shelves overnight and said inventor doesn't get a dime. Why did he even bother, unless for a greater cause. He could very well have leased it to GIANT CORPORATION X, and both entities benefit.

    20 years seems to be an incredibly excessive amount of time, though.


    Just because currently patent holders are legally capable of preventing me (legally) making and doing as I see fit with my own materials and intellect, doesn't mean it's somehow "right" that they can


    You can do whatever the hell you want with your own materials, you just cant sell them for profit. Please, by all means, convert your vehicle to a hybrid. The environment could use it.
  • by elrous0 (869638) on Friday January 13, 2006 @10:07AM (#14462902)
    GM's new strategy to get itself out of the hole: Sue the mean old Japanese company that beat them to the punch while you desperately rush to deveop your own hybrid.

    -Eric

  • by nahdude812 (88157) on Friday January 13, 2006 @10:09AM (#14462927) Homepage
    Actually, despite the obvious joke in your comment, I honestly can't decide.

    On one hand, we need more alternatives to oil, and anything that hurts that hurts us all in the long run.

    On the other hand, if a high profile patent case is brought against hybrid cars, then it'll possibly bring the absurdity of current patent situations into the public light, and I can already hear screaming on the senate floor about the evils of patents.

    On the third hand, patents *do* have their uses (recovering research costs and profiting from your truly unobvious inventions), and not knowing the background here, it's possible these guys deserve their patent (even if they should probably have upheld it earlier). Not all patents are evil.
  • by Andy Dodd (701) <atd7@nOspaM.cornell.edu> on Friday January 13, 2006 @10:18AM (#14463000) Homepage
    Yeah, two of the base technologies have been around for ages, but this particular combination of the two is a novel idea. The patent in question is a lot narrower than the Slashdot summary makes it seem. It basically almost exactly describes Toyota's HSD system, which you must admit, IS a novel and original method for creating a hybrid vehicle. The patent will not be enforceable against most other hybrid manufacturers, as they use different hybrid systems.

    In this situation, unlike some of the past abusers of the patent system, the company asserting the patent has a damned solid case from what I've seen so far, and a right to at least reasonable royalties from Toyota.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 13, 2006 @10:23AM (#14463043)
    That would severely hurt "the little guy." What if the little guy can't afford to bring the idea to market? Let IBM take the idea and profit? I would rather make IBM PAY for it.

    How many patents have you been granted? I'll bet 0.
  • by Aragorn379 (260855) on Friday January 13, 2006 @10:54AM (#14463269)
    Every time a patent story comes up, people always point out that the developer needs to have his invention protected. However, a patent does more than just prevent people from copying the inventor's invention. A patent prevents anyone else from independently developing the invention. This is why the invention needs to be non-obvious, which sadly seems to have effectively dropped from the patent approval process. Who protects the independent inventor who happens to be working on the same idea and developing a similar device independently? It is at least as important to protect this independent inventor as it is to protect the patent filer.

    The whole patent system seems pretty ill-conceived to me. I don't particularly have a better solution, but strong enforcement of the prior art and non-obvious criterion would be a good start. The problem in my mind is that the whole patent system is based on the premise that inventions are developed from scratch. This just isn't the way most progress is done. Almost all inventions are combinations or refinements of existing technology. Sometimes those combinations/refinements are a large leap, sometimes they are rather obvious next steps.

    In the case of hybrid cars, it's a combination of existing internal combustion engine and electric engine technology. The ground breaking part isn't the combination so much as it's the design to make a practical system. It's obvious that the technologies could be combined, it's not that much of a leap to see that it could possibly improve gas mileage based on existing understanding of effeciencies, but it's very unclear how to put the whole thing together such that you actually end up with better gas mileage.
  • by MaWeiTao (908546) on Friday January 13, 2006 @11:00AM (#14463318)
    I'm all for innovation, enhanced fuel efficiency, alternative fuels and all that. However, I have a fundamental problem with hybrids. Hybrids are an overly complex method for squeezing out a little extra mileage.

    There are two reasons why they've been attractive. The first is that they're fashionable, especially with the celebrities driving around in them. But even then, the Prius has been more successful than any other hybrid not because it's superior, but simply because the styling is different from most cars. It looks futuristic, it looks like a hybrid. the car is essentially a fashion statement.

    The second, less perceptable reason for your average consumer, is that hybrids don't feel like they're equipped with a small gasoline engine. The fuel efficiency all comes from the fact that the engine is small, not that there's some great leap in technology in the car. The distinction is that the electric motor provides additional power preventing the car from feeling too sluggish. In some cases the electric motor can motivate the car on it's own, but that only applies to the Prius and Ford hybrids, the Civic still needs the engine to get it going. It's only under a limited set of circumstances that the engine can fully take over anyway.

    Then there's the premium a hybrid commands over a normal car, and the fact that the batteries themselves are extremely expensive, and are rated for, at most, 100,000 miles only under ideal circumstances. Then there's the fact that batteries can be highly polluting, both during manufacturing and disposal.

    If you wan't real fuel efficiency buy a car with a 1 liter engine like are available in Europe. The car is going to be extremely sluggish, but it will get you from point A to point B. You can drive it like a normal car and still expect the kind of mileage hybrids struggle to match. If you want to go one up on that, get a small-displacement diesel which get even better mileage. Although, those cars tend to pollute considerably.

    As an interim step I think hybrids are perfectly fine. My concern is that hybrids are going to turn into cash cows for automakers and they're going to get fixated on them neglecting development of far superior technologies.

    What I predict is that the American automakers will go nuts over hybrids like they did over SUVs. By the time they've saturated the market with them and have to offer massive discounts to get them off their lots the foreign automakers will already be introducing new technologies. Man, I'd like to know what kind of idiots are running those companies.
  • Re:/tin hat (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 13, 2006 @11:33AM (#14463631)
    You people are really loose with the word "truth." All I see is a bunch of anecdotal cases where people are unhealthy and decide to blame it on aspartame. Do you have any valid causative scientific studies to actually back up your extreme claims about the sugar substitute?
  • Re:Don't laugh! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Waffle Iron (339739) on Friday January 13, 2006 @11:34AM (#14463647)
    Plug-in hybrids are a lame idea, especially in the US where electricity is more expensive than gasoline.

    Electricity is often about 10 cents/KWh. A gallon of gasoline holds about 34 KWh, so at $2.50/gal that's 7.3 cents/KWh.

    The deal is that most of the thermodynamic losses involved in creating electric power happen before you pay for it. You might get 80% of the electrical power you pay for delivered to your tires after battery and motor losses. With gasoline, your engine is lucky to extract only 25% of the fuel's energy as useful work. That would make your fuel costs for a gasoline powered car at least twice as expensive than an electrically powered one for the same amount of work done.

  • by Yartrebo (690383) on Friday January 13, 2006 @11:36AM (#14463672)
    Not only that, but it also prevents people from improving on the patented idea or adapting it for other uses. The patent holder of this regenerative braking patent was never, ever going to enter the auto industry, and if they did, I'd rather buy a Gremlin than whatever crap they'd come up with (it's very expensive to design a good car, doubly so if you're going to be a start-up with no experience).

    Heck, the patent holder most likely would have built their product back when they did anyway. The major money is in the design, not the brainstorming (and this patent, like most patents, is essentially a product of brainstorming - which is repeated countless times across the globe).
  • by jumpingmatt (945669) on Friday January 13, 2006 @11:56AM (#14463876)
    Someone above pointed out that Ford is paying royalties to Toyota for the hybrid technology, but they left out a critical point - Ford isn't actually using Toyota's hybrid technology - they created their own in-house that was so close to what Toyota beat them to market with, that they decided to be on the safe side they would license the technology from Toyota to avoid litigation.

    It's hard to be an apologist for Toyota on this one when they have been using their own patents on the technology to collect royalties from another company already. Really, Ford and Toyota both should have been paying this other company from the beginning.

    Toyota isn't this benevolent company. They make hybrids because it makes good business sense (if not profit, which arguably they do now). They are using their patents with other automakers in exactly the way this other company is attempting to.
  • Re:/tin hat (Score:3, Insightful)

    by IAmTheDave (746256) <basenamedave-sdNO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Friday January 13, 2006 @12:02PM (#14463931) Homepage Journal
    Patents do, and they're what's relevant to this discussion. Next?

    Yeah, after 20 years, and then maybe a continuation. 2 years is enough to completely stifle innovation. 20? PCs were barely around 20 years ago and look at the world today. Imagine someone buying and hording the patent to a Personal Computer (which could happen in today's world.) Is that 20 years enough to kill innovation? Um, yeah.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 13, 2006 @12:03PM (#14463940)
    The parent makes good points. Slashdot readers typically have just enough knowledge of patent law to be dangerous. Some pointers:

    - Claims are the only things that matter. As the parent points out, independent claims really matter. Dependent claims only function as extensions of the independent claim. That is, if your claim structure looks like this:

    We claim A [independent claim]
          And we further claim A when B is applied [dependent claim]

    you do not own B. You own B only if it is applied to B.

    - The patent background (the first, non-claim part) only "sets the stage". It does not define what the patent covers. If the background says your patent is for hybrid drive systems, you do NOT own all hybrid drive systems. In fact, you may own no hybrid drive systems at all. Look at the claims to see what you own.

    - "Obviousness" in the world of patent law means something quite different from the conventional definition. All specialized fields have their own lingo. If you're annoyed when people mis-use computer terminology (e.g., "the internet" to mean "the WWW") then you might want to consider that, outside your own sphere of knowledge, a given word may not mean what you think it means.

    - There is such a thing as a narrow patent. To determine the breadth of a patent, one must read the claims. Some patents are incredibly narrow...if you've heard that company X "patented NIMH batteries" that does NOT mean that company X owns all NIMH batteries. They may own all implementations of NIMH batteries when said batteries are suspended in a protective bath vanilla pudding. Again, read the claims.

    It's silly to expect Slashdot readers to be patent attorneys (or patent agents) but it's also silly for Slashdot readers to spout off about topics they don't understand. Slashdot comments about patents sound to patent people like PHB comments about computers sound to Slashdot readers.

    Education is good for you! Use Google or maybe go to www.nolo.com to learn a bit about patent law before you comment.

    N.B. This post does not imply that there's nothing wrong with the US patent system as it stands...it only asserts that the system may be more complex and subtle than is commonly understood.
  • Re:/tin hat (Score:3, Insightful)

    by elrous0 (869638) on Friday January 13, 2006 @12:40PM (#14464332)
    Patents do

    No, when you get close to the 20 year mark, you just patent some other aspect of your invention--extending the patent another 20 years. Repeat as needed.

    -Eric

  • Re:Don't laugh! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by qeveren (318805) on Friday January 13, 2006 @01:12PM (#14464618)
    The reason you're not likely to see a pure electric car in the US is because the auto manufacturers hate the idea. Why?

    Standard internal combustion engine: ~700 moving parts.

    Electric engine: 1 moving part.

    The only maintenance that needs be done to an electric motor is to replace the brushes, which is trivial. How much to customers pay (on an ongoing basis) for maintenance of internal combustion engines?
  • "iawtp" (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Phil Urich (841393) on Friday January 13, 2006 @01:20PM (#14464702) Journal
    Why "redundant"? I would mod it more along the lines of "funny" or "insightful" myself, and as another AC replying to parent notes, a second post being redundant, howabout that logic there... Look at the timestamp. It's the same MINUTE as the first post.

    And it's so true. Every events like this, my own reaction always goes "see, now people must see the insanity and unreasonable arbitraryness of our patent system! . . . oh, who am I fooling."
  • Re:Easy Solution. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by bhtooefr (649901) <bhtooefr@bhtooef[ ]rg ['r.o' in gap]> on Friday January 13, 2006 @01:28PM (#14464778) Homepage Journal
    Three words: low end torque.

    Note that my peak torque is at 2000 RPMs.

    BTW, I've only got 52 hp :P - 58 horsepower is for the newer ecodiesels, which are turbodiesels without a boost enrichment valve.

    Also, where I live, the speed limit is only 65 MPH.

    And, my car is fun. It's a different kind of fun, though - not "how fast can I go", or "how fast can I get my 0-60 or 1/4 mile times" - it's "what kind of MPG numbers can I get". Oh, and "how much smoke can I put in the windshield of the guy who's 1" away from my bumper, because I'm not going 20 over the speed limit :P
  • by whitroth (9367) <whitroth&5-cent,us> on Friday January 13, 2006 @01:50PM (#14465012) Homepage
    I beg your pardon, but I have seen vehicles with regenerative braking my entire *life*... and I'm well into my fifties.

    Or are 100% of all non-steam locomotives too "old tech" for the folks here?

    Please note, btw, that ALL "diesel locomotives" are actually 'hybrids", using a diesel engine to generate electricity to run electric motors.

    I'd say that prior art takes regenerative braking out of the so-called infringement.

              mark "yes, I am into trains...."
  • Re:Easy Solution. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by rsun (653397) on Friday January 13, 2006 @03:24PM (#14465921) Homepage
    So if the Prius gains all of it's efficiency through weight loss and aerodynamic efficiency, please explain how the Ford Escape, or Toyota Highlander, or Lexus Rx400h get their increased fuel efficiency. All three are exactly the same aerodynamically as the non-hybrid vehicle, all three weigh considerably more (I think it's around 300 lbs for the Escape) than the non-hybrids, yet all 3 get better fuel mileage and produce significantly less tailpipe emissions (something like 10 - 20% of the emissions of the non-hybrids). As many folks have mentioned, hybrids get much of the economy gains by using engines tuned for fuel economy rather than low end torque (which the electric motor can supply), by running the engine as close to optimal rpms as possible (by using the CVT transmission) and by recovering some of the energy through regenerative braking. Granted, you could make the engine and CVT changes to a non-hyrbid and probably get as good or possibly even better fuel economy, but your aggregate tail pipe emissions would likely be higher and your driving experience would probably be worse.
  • by hackstraw (262471) * on Friday January 13, 2006 @04:49PM (#14466720)
    Q: Why should I pay more for a Prius just because a boat motor guy came up with the same technology???

    A: Because this guy came up with it first.


    So long as I'm the only person that is punished because the other guy came up with it first (unverified, just like Edison's lightbulb), I guess its OK.

    Patents are a necessary evil

    I like pithy quotes:

    "Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil."

    -- Jerry Garcia

    "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

    -- Edmond Burke

    hellish world of guild secrets

    Well, patents are I guess open "secrets" for some period of time. I seriously doubt that Toyota looked at Solomon's motor, and said, "Why didn't we think of that, lets just rip this off?" BTW, I do that all the time with snippits or sometimes just generic methods from open source software. In fact, being that I have much more experience in that area, lets parallel this to patents, which I have no direct experience with.

    I am a very skilled programmer and system administrator. Besides generic education in science and from troubleshooting and working with things since I was a kid, I have had no formal training in computers.

    By the open source aspects of Linux and other GNU and other open source software, I was able to understand and help build on some of these, and I treat my experience as something like a mentorship from people from around the world that have freely given away their software, including the source.

    If that information were closed source or patented, or whatever, I believe that would be a worse situation for me and my employers and for those that have benefitted from using my patches and my shared experience.

    With this patent from this guy, every Prius buyer and Toyota, and possibly other makes from other manufacturers and their customers will to some degree loose because of this patent. The only winner is Solomon, et al.

    I have no experience with business in China or in a system free of patents, with the exception for most all of the software that I use personally and professionally.

    The software developers that have taught me how to do what I do did it for "free", but I seriously doubt that these people are hungry and without a place to live. I seriously doubt that the boat engine guy will loose a sale or be hungry or without a place to live because Toyota sells cars that may or may not have been a complete rip off of his idea.

    The fact is that with the patent way, I see a few people gaining non-significantly, while many loose, again, probably non-significantly. I can't afford a Prius, or at least justify the cost. But if it were another $100 or $1000 dollars, I don't think that would make much of a difference, but I certainly could and would use that money for something else.

  • by hackstraw (262471) * on Saturday January 14, 2006 @03:27PM (#14472031)
    I do too, but not from old, fat, hippie stoners. Have you "loost" your mind?

    Whatever. Jerry is not old, fat, or a hippie stoner. He has been dead 10 years. He is more like a skeleton now.

    Jerry was a very kind and intelligent person that could play the fuck out of a guitar. Other things he has said:

    Regarding consciousness:

    "What is life but being conscious? And good and evil are manifestations of consciousness. If you reject one, you're not getting the whole thing that's there to be had."

    There are others, but I can't find them, and my laptop is turned off.

    Regarding being a kick ass human being, company, or whatever:

    "You do not merely want to be considered the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones that do what you do."

    Insight into their role in life:

    "Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us."

    Similar things have been said by other good and bad bright people like Stephen Hawking and Charles Manson. Hawking said, something like "I don't know if I'm good at this physics stuff, or if people just think I am and want me to be". Manson said, "You created me".

    Jerry was an excellent human being. I miss him.

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.

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