More Greenwashing 2.0: Another Biofuels Credit Fraud Scheme Exposed

July 21st, 2014 by Eric Lane No comments »

In previous posts (e.g., here and here), I’ve discussed cases of fraudulent renewable energy credits and other environmental crimes and argued they ought to be considered greenwashing.

A recent indictment is another case in point.  The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced that a federal grand jury in Houston, Texas indicted an individual for allegedly selling fraudulent renewable identification numbers (RINs).

The indictment alleges that an individual using the name Philip Joseph Rivkin operated and controlled several Houston-based fuel companies including Green Diesel LLC, Fuel Streamers Inc. and Petro Constructors LLC.

The defendant allegedly claimed that Green Diesel produced millions of gallons of biodiesel at its Houston facility then generated and sold about 45 million RINs based on the claim.  However, according to the indictment, Green Diesel did not actually produce any biodiesel at its facility.  The defendant allegedly made millions of dollars selling the fraudulent RINs.

This type of fraudulent activity undermines the policy goal of RINs – to ensure a certain level of renewable fuel in U.S. gasoline – by damaging the market for valid RINs and ultimately reducing the actual volume of biofuels in circulation.

According to a spokesman for a biodiesel trade group quoted in this StarTribune article, the RIN scam has hurt the biofuels industry by making obligated parties more wary of purchasing the credits from biodiesel producers.

The fraud and resulting damage are recognizable when we view the putative RIN purchasers as green consumers, albeit commercial consumers instead of individuals, falling victim to false representations about the validity of renewable energy-based financial products.

In apparent recognition of the damage caused by fraudulent RINs, Biofuels Digest reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently finalized additional regulations to ensure oversight of RIN generation and improve the RIN market.

Developing Details on Our Tesla Patents

July 17th, 2014 by Eric Lane No comments »

In a prior post, I discussed the Tesla-Patent Commons.  Further to that piece and the other media attention around Elon Musk’s announcement, there have been a couple of notable follow-on lists and analyses of the Tesla patents, which now belong to all of us.

First, Envision IP published this infographic, which provides a nice breakdown of the Tesla patent portfolio.  According to their count (as of June 12, 2014), Tesla had 172 issued U.S. patents and 123 published U.S. applications.

By far the largest group is batteries & charging technology, which makes up 120 patents and 71 applications.  Motor & drive controls is next with 20 patents and 15 applications, followed by 10 patents and 4 applications directed to frame & chassis inventions.  Bringing up the rear are doors & latches, HVAC tech, and sunroofs.

Cleantechnica offers a footnote of sorts in a recent piece noting that 25 Tesla patents and applications relate to battery fire & hazard risk reduction technologies.   An example of an issued patent is U.S. Patent No. 8,445,126, entitled “Hazard mitigation within a battery pack using metal-air cells.”

I figure it’s good for us to know more details about these patents.  After all, they belong to us.

Guest Post: Can Patents Slow Climate Change? A Proposal for a Carbon Royalty

July 14th, 2014 by John Vandenberg No comments »

Patents traditionally are used for the private good of the property holder. At best, the public benefits only indirectly from the resulting technology innovations. But what if patents were used directly for the public’s good, to reduce carbon emissions?

Specifically, what if one of more Green NPEs assembled and enforced a portfolio of patents to impose, in effect, a carbon royalty on moving greenhouse gases from ground to air?

Using patents to impose a carbon royalty has some fundamental advantages.

First and foremost, patents are private property and private-property owners have huge advantages in civil litigation over mere concerned citizens. For example, unlike traditional environmental civil litigation, there is no difficult “standing” hurdle to clear.

Second, patent licensing is extremely flexible, particularly given the weakened state of the “patent misuse” defense today. Once a patent-infringement suit gets a target’s attention, there is no end to the variety of licensing agreements and royalty-payment structures that can be tailored to a particular targeted practice and actor to serve both private business interests and also publicly beneficial carbon-emission-reduction goals.

For example, the Green NPE might seek an injunction under 35 U.S.C. § 271(g), against sale of bitumen-derived petroleum coke produced by the patented method, and license the patent only for use with improved petroleum coke processing techniques or equipment but not for coke derived from tar sands bitumen.

Third, despite some weakening over the past decade, patents still are monopolies with powerful exclusionary rights, and the “public interest” is a key factor courts consider when deciding whether to enjoin infringements.

What kinds of patents?

First, obviously, patents on inventions important to the offending technology. E.g., a patent covering a method or component widely used in the production or processing of bitumen-derived petroleum coke. Such patents can be enforced against selected targets to either enjoin the offending activity outright or to license it with restrictions geared toward curbing impacts on the climate.

Second, less obviously, patents on important ancillary technology, such as information technology, used by the targeted entity in connection with the targeted activity. This category includes patents on “beneficial” technologies that, e.g., decrease the emissions from a particular activity, but that companies need to use to remain competitive. These too can be enforced and licensed in ways that curb the offending activities of selected targets.

What’s needed to pursue this idea?

A network of patent attorneys, industry engineers and scientists, environmentalists, and investors. Perhaps the network would form one or more Green NPEs to build and enforce the patent portfolio, possibly in cooperation with the most progressive companies in the industry.

Comments? If you’re interested in exploring this idea please e-mail John D. Vandenberg, a patent litigator in Portland, Oregon, at patentsforthepublicgood@gmail.com.

 

John Vandenberg has been representing clients in patent litigation for more than 30 years and recently argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of patent “indefiniteness.”

Clean Tech in Court: Green Patent Complaint Update, Part II

July 9th, 2014 by Eric Lane No comments »

A number of green patent complaints have been filed in the last several months in the areas of energy management software, LEDs, smart meters, vertical axis wind turbines, and wastewater treatment.  This post covers new lawsuits filed from the end of March through the end of June.

 

Energy Management Software

Intercap Capital Partners, LLC  v. BuildingIQ, Inc.

On April 3, 2014, Intercap filed a patent infringement complaint against BuildingIQ in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware.  Intercap asserted U.S. Patent No. 8,078,330 (’330 Patent), alleging that the BuildingIQ software of system infringes the ’330 Patent.

Entitled “Automatic energy management and energy consumption reduction, especially in commercial and multi-building systems,” the ’330 Patent is directed to methods of managing energy usage data including monitoring current energy usage of the energy consumption devices in a building, monitoring building temperature, a building humidity, a building COlevel, a weather forecast and a real-time energy price, and initiating a real-time control of each energy consumption device based on the variables in response to a forecast that a new energy usage peak is approaching.

LEDs

Honeywell International Inc. v. Cree, Inc.

Honeywell sued major LED manufacturer Cree for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,373,188 (’188) and Reissue Patent No. RE41,685 (a reissue of U.S. Patent No. 6,666,567).

The ’188 Patent is entitled “Efficient solid-state light emitting device with excited phosphors for producing a visible light output” and directed to and LED having a phosphor layer and a reflector means adjacent to one side of the phosphor layer for reflecting some of the radiation and light emission that exits from the phosphor layer back into the phosphor layer.

The reissue patent is entitled “Light source with non-white and phosphor-based white LED devices, and LCD assembly” and relates to a light source with an LED coupled to the floor of an optical cavity to permit light to be emitted from the base of the LED and a reflective protrusion below the LED to aid in redirecting light forward.

The complaint was filed March 31, 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

 

Koninklijke Philips N.V. et al. v. Schreder Lighting LLC et al.

Filed May 27, 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Philips’ complaint asserts the following twelve LED patents:

U.S. Patent No. 6,094,014, entitled “Circuit arrangement, and signaling light provided with the circuit arrangement”

U.S. Patent No. 6,234,645, entitled “LED lighting system for producing white light”

U.S. Patent No. 6,234,648, entitled “Lighting system”

U.S. Patent No. 6,250,774, entitled “Luminaire”

U.S. Patent No. 6,513,949, entitled “LED/phosphor-LED hybrid lighting systems”

U.S. Patent No. 6,577,512, entitled “Power supply for LEDs”

U.S. Patent No. 6,586,890, entitled “LED driver circuit with PWM output”

U.S. Patent No. 6,692,136, entitled “LED/phosphor-LED hybrid lighting systems”

U.S. Patent No. 6,788,011, entitled “Multicolored LED lighting method and apparatus”

U.S. Patent No. 6,806,659, entitled “Multicolored LED lighting method and apparatus”

U.S. Patent No. 6,972,525, entitled “LED switching arrangement”

U.S. Patent No. 7,274,160, entitled “Multicolored lighting method and apparatus”

According to the complaint, Schreder’s floodlight, street-light, residential and urban area LED lighting products, including the Alura LED, FV32 LED, Hestia LED, Piano, Teceo, Akila, Isla LED, Modullum, Neos LED and Nemo brands for, infringe one or more of the asserted patents.

 

Smart Meters

Sensor-Tech Innovations LLC v. Texas-New Mexico Power Company

Austin, Texas-based Sensor-Tech filed a patent infringement suit against the Texas-New Mexico Power Company (TNMP) for alleged infringement of a patent related to smart meter technology.

The complaint, filed in federal court in Marshall, Texas on June 20, 2014, asserts U.S. Patent No. 6,505,086 (’086 Patent).  Entitled “XML sensor system,” the ’086 Patent is directed to a sensor sommunication system adapted to transmit a sensor data file in XML format.

According to the complaint, TNMP’s advanced metering system infringes at least three claims of the ’086 Patetn.

 

Vertical Axis Wind Turbines

SAWT Inc. et al. v. Joe Moore Construction Inc. et al.

On May 13, 2014 SAWT filed a complaint for patent infringement in federal court in Los Angeles.  SAWT has accused Joe Moore Construction, d/b/a Wind Sun Energy Systems and co-defendant Urban Green Energy of infringing U.S. Patent No. 7,967,569 (’569 Patent).

The ’569 Patent is entitled “Vertical shaft wind turbine and method of installing blades therein” and directed to a vertical shaft wind turbine wherein the airfoil of each turbine blade is an asymmetrical camber airfoil, each blade is installed with only the convex surface facing the vertical shaft, and a rotary angle of each blade is between 0 and 15 degrees.

The ’569 Patent is owned by co-plaintiff Shanghai Aeolus Windpower Technology; SAWT is a non-exclusive licensee.  This is an interesting one as it’s rare to see litigation over small (non-utility scale) wind turbines, particularly of the vertical axis type.

Wastewater Treatment

Chaffin v. Braden and LBC Manufacturing

Mark N. Chaffin, an individual, sued LBC Manufacturing for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,932,912, entitled “Wastewater treatment system for residential septic systems” (’912 Patent).

The ’912 Patent is directed to wastewater treatment systems and methods wherein a chlorine supply tube is in communication with a venturi chamber and in constant fluid communication a chlorine supply in a chlorine supply canister.  As recirculating pumped sewage effluent flows through the venturi chamber, chlorine from the supply canister is continuously drawn into the venturi chamber and into a recirculation pipe.

Filed April 16, 2014 in federal court in Victoria, Texas, the complaint alleges that the LBC500 liquid bleach chlorinator infringes the ’912 Patent.

Floating Island Patent Portfolio Combines Clean and Green

July 2nd, 2014 by Eric Lane No comments »

Floating Island International (FII) is a Montana-based company that has developed technology for creating islands that can effectively support plant and animal life (full disclosure:  FII is a client of my firm and FII CEO Bruce Kania agreed to be interviewed for this post).

The company’s BioHaven® floating islands help maintain the health of wetland ecosystems through a “concentrated” wetland effect, i.e., higher removal rates of nitrate, phosphate and ammonia as well as reduction of  total suspended solids and dissolved organic carbon in waterways.

According to Kania, what differentiates FII from other floating treatment wetland providers is that FII’s islands are made of massive biofilm grown within a matrix that includes microbes and their residue, with high volumes of trapped biogas.  Put another way, the company’s floating islands “incorporate nature’s models to solve problems with water.”

While other floating island technologies achieve buoyancy through use of buoyant chambers in a raft, FII used either buoyant nodules or foam sealant interspersed within the matrix.

FII’s patent portfolio includes a number of worldwide patent families focusing on different aspects of the company’s technology, including:

U.S. Patent Nos. 8,327,579 and 8,250,808 and U.S. Patent Application Publication No. 2011/0146559 (’559 Application), each entitled ”Super enhanced, adjustably buoyant floating island.”  These patents and applications are directed to floating islands comprising at least one layer of water-permeable, non-woven mesh material and including different innovative features for achieving and adjusting the buoyancy of the islands, such as pressure injected foam sealant.  Figure 4 of the ‘ 559 Application is reproduced here:

U.S. Patent No. 8,372,277, entitled “Floating treatment streambed,” is directed to a floating streambed including a circulation pump and treatment channels made of a permeable matrix.  The water entering the treatment channels flows both horizontally through the treatment channel and into the water body and also vertically downward through the permeable matrix of the treatment channels.

U.S. Patent 7,784,218 is entitled “Combination cell foam floating island” and directed to a floating island comprising a flat sheet insert in the matrix layers of the island that traps gas underneath the insert.  A representative figure is reproduced below:

U.S. Patent No. 8,132,364, entitled Highly buoyant and semi-rigid floating islands,” is directed to an island made of two modules where each module has a semi-rigid internal frame, a bottom layer, and a semi-permeable top layer.  The island has a planting pocket disposed between the first and second modules and supported by the semi-rigid frames.
U.S. Patent No. 7,810,279 is entitled “Buoyant wetland system” and directed to a simulated wetland system that includes a plant habitat that is normally submerged and has a first and second buoyant blanket assembly.  Each buoyant blanket assembly comprises a non-woven mat that includes buoyant bodies.  The plant habitat is comprised of a container of a non-woven mat  that encircles a portion of growth medium.  A representative figure is reproduced below:

FII’s patent portfolio forms the foundation of the company and is critical for its success spreading its technology around the world.  As Kania told me, “without IP and an ability to enjoy a limited monopoly on behalf of its license holders, our ability to forward in the undeveloped world is minimal.”

The company has entered into a number of licensing deals.  Partners and potential partners are “intrigued and energized for a clean tech solution to water quality issues.”  FII’s licensees include a variety of people and business entities that have business dealings around water, particularly wetland work, but also include companies involved in plastics recycling and stone masonry.

Though FII’s path is a “departure from conventional green technology efforts” because it’s not about renewables or conservation per se, its technology is making an impact and is most definitely green.

Clean Tech in Court: Green Patent Complaint Update, Part I

June 26th, 2014 by Eric Lane No comments »

A number of green patent complaints have been filed in the last several months in the areas of hybrid electric vehicles, ethanol production, LEDs, water treatment, and exhaust treatment catalysts.  This post covers new lawsuits filed from late 2013 to the end of March 2014.

 

Hybrid Electric Vehicles

Paice LLC v. Ford Motor Company

After major success asserting its patents against Toyota, the HEV development and licensing company Paice is at it again.  On February 19, 2014, Paice sued Ford Motor Company for patent infringement in federal court in Baltimore.

The rather lengthy complaint accuses Ford of infringing U.S. Patent Nos. 7,237,634, 7,104,347, 7,559,388, 8,214,097, and 7,455,134.  These patents are part of a large family tracing priority all the way back to 1999.  Each patent is entitled “Hybrid vehicles” and relates to hybrid vehicles and associated control systems.

In its complaint, Paice lays out the details of, among other things, its collaborative relationship with Ford and how it soured.  The accused products are Ford’s Fusion hybrid and plug-in hybrid, C-Max hybrid and plug-in hybrid, and Lincoln MKZ.

 

Biofuels (Ethanol Production)

GS Cleantech Corporation v. Pacific Ethanol Stockton LLC

GS Cleantech Corporation v. Pacific Ethanol Magic Valley, LLC et al.

GS recently initiated two new lawsuits involving its patented ethanol production processes.  A complaint filed March 17, 2014 in federal court in Sacramento, California accused Pacific Ethanol Stockton of infringing U.S. Patent No. 7,601,858, entitled “Method of processing ethanol byproducts and related subsystems” (’858 Patent).

The next day, GS sued Pacific Ethanol Magic Valley in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho.  The Idaho complaint asserted the ’858 Patent as well as U.S. Patent Nos. 8,008,516 and8,283,484, each entitled “Method of processing ethanol byproducts and related subsystems,” and as U.S. Patent No. 8,008,517, entitled “Method of recovering oil from thin stillage.”

The patents relate to methods of recovering oil from byproducts of ethanol production using the process of dry milling, which creates a waste stream comprised of byproducts called whole stillage.

GS has been on an aggressive patent enforcement campaign over the last several years.  Multiple actions were consolidated in the Southern District of Indiana, where the asserted patents were construed and re-construed.

 

LEDs

Luminus Devices, Inc. v. LED Engin, Inc.

Making its first green patent litigation appearance (to my knowledge), Massachusetts based Luminus Devices sued LED Engin in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Filed back in November 2013, the complaint accuses LED Engin of infringing U.S. Patent No. 7,170,100 (’100 Patent).  Entitled “Packaging designs for LEDs,” the ’100 Patent is directed to an array of LEDs and an LED package.

The package includes a layer configured so that at least about 75% of the light that that emerges from the LED and impinges on the layer passes through the layer. The layer is disposed such that a distance between the surface of the LED and a surface of the layer nearest to the surface of the LED is from about five microns to about 400 microns.

The accused products are several LED emitters allegedly made and sold by LED Engin.

 

Lighting Science Group Corporation v. Cooper Lighting, LLC

On February 6, 2014 Florida LED lighting company Lighting Science Group (LSG) sued rival Cooper Lighting for patent infringement in federal court in Orlando.

The complaint alleges that Cooper infringes U.S. Patent No. 8,201,968 (’968 Patent) by its manufacture and sale of the Halo LED Recessed White Surface Disk Light products.

Entitled “Low profile light,” the ’968 Patent is directed to a luminaire including a heat spreader and a heat sink disposed outboard of the heat spreader, an outer optic securely retained relative to the heat spreader and/or the heat sink, and an LED light source.

 

Water Treatment

Envirogen Technologies, Inc. v. Maxim Construction Corporation

Envirogen Technologies, a Texas company that makes water purification systems, recently filed a lawsuit for breach of contract and patent infringement against Maxim Construction.

Filed March 25, 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the complaint lists three patents – U.S. Patent Nos. 7,309,436 (’436 Patent), 6,878,286 (’286 Patent) and 7,041,223 (’223 Patent).

Entitled “High efficiency ion exchange system for removing contaminants from water,” the ’286 and ’223 Patents are related and are directed to a fixed bed ion exchange water purification system that combines features of single fixed bed ion exchange systems with those of a moving bed system.

The ’436 Patent is entitled “Process for removing perchlorate ions from water streams” and directed to methods and systems for removing perchiorate from water.

According to the complaint, Maxim failed to make all payments under a contract to purchase an Envirogen water purification system, and therefore its use of the system is unlicensed and infringing.

 

Exhaust Treatment Catalysts

EmeraChem Holdings, LLC v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

EmeraChem Holdings, a Tennessee-based company that creates catalysts for gas and liquid fuels, sued Volkswagen in federal court in Knoxville, Tennessee on March 31, 2014.

The complaint asserts infringement of U.S. Patent Nos.:

 5,451,558, entitled “Process for the reaction and absorption of gaseous air pollutants, apparatus therefor and method of making the same”;

5,599,758, entitled “Reduction of absorbed nitrogen oxides by reaction with gas flow containing hydrogen and/or carbon monoxide”;

5,953,911, entitled “Regeneration of catalyst/absorber”;

6,037,307 , entitled “Catalyst/sorber for treating sulfur compound containing effluent”: and

7,951,346, entitled “Methods and systems for reducing particulate matter in a gaseous stream”.

According to the complaint, Volkswagen’s diesel powered vehicles equipped with exhaust treatment systems, NOx storage catalyst, and other exhaust treatment catalysts infringe one or more of the patents.

In Defense of IPR: The Timing of the Tesla Move will Diminish The Company’s Value

June 19th, 2014 by Philip Totaro* No comments »

Guest post by Philip Totaro, Founder & CEO of Totaro & Associates

 

In the early stage of an industry, the long term may seem like it’s too far away.  Penetration of electric vehicles (EVs) has not yet reached levels where it is displacing significant market share from conventional gas-powered automobiles, in spite of the popularity of EVs in some regional markets around the world.

A recent move intended to inspire further EV adoption, announced in a blog post by Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, to “not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology,” seems to be quite popular so far.

While this is a noble and well-intentioned move, unfortunately, this thought process represents a widely held misconception about intellectual property: that it is only a legal matter, rather than a commercial one.

Patents are not just about hitting the ‘litigation lottery’ as Mr. Musk put it.  Patents are the codification of innovation and they represent the investment of time and effort from the innovative and creative people who have their names on them.  Making the investment in intellectual property protection in the first place presumes that you are willing and able to enforce your rights.

In any market there will be those who are driven by greed, and we have seen the exploitation of intellectual property by so-called “patent trolls.”  Mr. Musk appears to be frustrated with this exploitation of intellectual property, stating that:

…too often these days [patents] serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors.

I choose not to be so cynical about the process of protecting innovation and intellectual property rights (IPR).  While many things are inefficient about the patent and trademark protection process, we live in a time when IPR are more respected around the world than they have ever been, notwithstanding the specific cases of misuse which we have become aware of in recent years.

Simply put, IPR create jobs and shareholder value for the companies that invest in innovation.  The legal profession around protecting and litigating IPR has arisen because of the increase in innovation, not because of a desire or need to line their pockets at the expense of companies who misappropriate the IPR of a competitor.

“Open sourcing” one’s patent portfolio reduces the ability to obtain value in return for that investment in innovation.  There is also value in holding a portfolio of IP assets on a diverse set of technologies because IPR creates a mechanism by which you can cross-license your technology and that IPR in case litigation comes your way, even if you don’t intend to initiate it.

Perhaps the big carmakers aren’t fully embracing EVs yet, but they certainly have the resources at their disposal to overwhelm Tesla if they wanted to.  Interestingly, Tesla doesn’t seem to understand another important aspect of IPR, which is that IP litigation between practicing entities only typically arises when their market share is encroached upon.  I suppose that if Tesla were making more of a dent in the car market, they wouldn’t be forced into this type of public relations stunt.

The timing of this also affords us the opportunity to discuss another widely held misconception about intellectual property, which is that there is more to IPR than just patents.  Typically, being first to market with a product in a new niche market matters more than having the most patents on that technology.

The inevitable action of competition that has the resources to invest in competing with an early market leader will be to duplicate their technology with improvements of their own in an effort to replicate the market leader’s commercial success.

A comment on the Tesla blog which first announced the intention not to litigate on their patents highlights some of the main concerns with this plan:

TeslaFan2014

4:42AM | JUN 14, 2014

Mr. Musk:

Great News for those interested in your company’s technology!  Can you please back up this press release with actual details/procedures?

Can you please direct those that are interested in practicing your company’s patented technology a contact where they can receive a royalty-free, perpetual license to practice your company’s technology, as the release suggests? No company will start [to] willfully practice another company’s technology without assurances they will not be sued (a press release does not cut it).

Can you have your IT folks upload a perpetual, royalty free license like the one above, signed by you, so that it can be easily downloaded and signed by companies that want to practice your patented technology?

Can you specify which patents you are actually talking about? Does this mean all of Tesla’s patents? In any country?

The spirit behind this press release is great. Now, we need details.  

Thank you again for such a generous thing that you are doing.

 I, and others, look forward to seeing how you are actually going to get this done.

In Tesla’s case, this move will hurt them in two ways longer-term:

 

Undercutting the future commercial value of the company

IPR precludes duplication of one’s technology by competitors.  Even if I don’t have Tesla’s drawings, if I have engineering and financial resources, I can still reverse engineer what they’ve done and improve upon it at a potentially faster rate than Tesla can innovate.

If Tesla is informing their competitors they will not enforce their IPR, how do they expect to effectively deter competition from penetrating the market with potentially better technology than theirs in the future?

Savvy companies tend to study the IPR of their competitors and spend time and resources designing around or improving upon the current state of the art.  Tesla’s move does address one of Mr. Musk’s pain points in that it will lower the commercial barriers to competition in the EV market, rather than using proprietary rights to “stifle progress” in the industry.

However, giving away key aspects of your technology without a license fee inherently diminishes your investment and makes it easier for your competition to leapfrog you.  So, when the EV market does take off, Tesla’s competitors will be in a better position to gain commercial advantage and more market share than Tesla.

Tesla will still be a takeover target, given their entrenched position commercially and technologically, but with a significantly lowered valuation resulting from this move.

 

Spares Sourcing

Tesla has been involved in several lawsuits and state legislative efforts to enable the company to have direct sales of their cars to consumers.  The car dealers in many states are of course unhappy because it undercuts their ability to generate sales revenue since they are bypassed by Tesla.

Providing a royalty-free license in their patents will exclude Tesla from preventing their sub-component suppliers to directly sell spare parts to consumers or independent repair shops.  This will bypass Tesla and curtail its ability to generate aftermarket and services revenue.

Since the EV market is immature and Tesla’s fleet of cars is relatively new, one can presume that this consequence was simply a strategic oversight on behalf of the company.

The move may garner some good PR value and potentially achieve greater market penetration of EVs and Tesla EVs, but it lacks foresight.  Tesla is a company beyond Elon Musk, and the passion and dedication of hundreds of employees and investors who made the commitment to work with the company in the early days deserves recognition and reward resulting from the commercial success of the company.

This noble attempt at changing the paradigm of technology development in a key industry of the future is ultimately short-sighted for Tesla, unless it has commitment from its competitors that they will follow suit and open their portfolio of IPR to the industry as well.

The open source software industry has been successful over the past 25 years because there was a community of companies who all agreed to play by the same rules.  So far, only Tesla is playing by these open source rules, and it appears unlikely that other major automakers would be willing to follow their lead.

Unfortunately, we don’t all live in the world of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek where money has been abolished and people want for nothing because nobody wants more than what they really need.  But until we achieve that utopian paradise, if I were a Tesla employee, I’d be furious right now that my company will be less valuable in the future than it could have been.

If Mr. Musk would be willing to redistribute his wealth to the employees and investors who made the commitment to create value for the company in the first place, then this move to open source their patents during the formative stages of the EV industry might make more sense.

 

*Philip Totaro is the Founder & CEO of Totaro & Associates, a consulting firm focused on innovation strategy, competitive intelligence, product development and patent search.  To find out more, or get in touch please visit www.totaro-associates.com.

Elon Musk Launches the Tesla-Patent Commons

June 14th, 2014 by Eric Lane No comments »

About six years ago, a handful of tech companies launched the Eco-Patent Commons.  This initiative to share environmentally friendly patented technologies is administered by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a Geneva-based organization that promotes sustainability in business.

Last week, of course, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, made quite a splash by announcing on the company blog that the EV maker would “donate” its entire patent portfolio.  To be precise, what Musk said was “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

Although Musk’s move is very much in the tradition of the Eco-Patent Commons, it is more significant and likely to have a greater impact.  The significance of the brand new Tesla-Patent Commons is best understood by comparing and contrasting it with the Eco-Patent Commons before it.  This comparative analysis reveals both major relative strengths and some flaws.

The greatest distinction between the two is in the nature, quality, and breadth of the available patents.  The Eco-Patent Commons is comprised of tiny random slices of technologies developed by an eclectic mix of donating companies.  An entity that wishes to commercially exploit technology in the Eco-Patent Commons would have to locate a donated patent directed to an important innovation, and any business opportunity would have to logically flow from that patented innovation.

Commercial success in this way seems unlikely for two reasons.  First, aside from patent “troll” activity and similar secondary market business models, businesses do not flow from patents.  It works much better the other way round:  innovate, start a business around the innovation, and then, if possible, patent the innovation.

Second, the patents in the Eco-Patent Commons are those which the donating companies had little interest in exploiting themselves (or licensing to others) so the odds are slim that they are directed to important innovations that will be worthwhile for others.

Tesla’s patent portfolio, on the other hand, is large in scope, holistic in its breadth (i.e., supporting established commercial products) and presumably includes the crown jewels of the company.  Everyone knows the technology areas, product areas, and business ventures Tesla’s patents can support.  One can easily envision a number of well-defined businesses successfully selling electric vehicles, advanced batteries, and charging systems based on the freedom to operate provided by the Tesla-Patent Commons.

Keep in mind, though, that no commons can provide 100% freedom to operate.  True, if you manufacture and sell EVs, batteries, or charging systems employing innovations that are entirely coextensive with the claims of Tesla’s patents you won’t be sued by Musk.  However, these are complex technologies.  What if your EV includes Tesla-patented innovations along side other technical features patented by another less commons-y patentee with enforcement proclivities?

Perhaps the possibilities are not so limited.  Maybe instead of the need to match the features of their products to the donated patent claims, budding Tesla-tech businesses could copy the EV maker’s actual products, e.g., manufacture the Tesla Model S under another name.  After all,  the company has been around for a while and, to my knowledge, hasn’t been sued for patent infringement.  So it seems Tesla has the freedom to operate for its existing product lines.

Then the question becomes whether there are any mechanisms besides its patents that confer upon Tesla this freedom to operate.  For example, does Tesla license any of the technologies in its vehicles from other patentees?  If so, a budding Tesla-tech business might need to ask Musk if he would consider assigning the rights under any relevant license agreements to which Tesla is a party.

So the Tesla-Patent Commons is very significant, and unlike any prior (small “e”) eco-patent commons, but the commercial and legal realities of dealing with patents and positioning technological businesses to be free to operate are always extremely complex.

Ultimately, the impact of Musk’s decision may turn on to what extent other such players will be motivated to invest in manufacturing vehicles, batteries, etc. using Tesla’s patented and patent-pending technology with the obvious upside being the proven innovation that technology brings and the down side being no exclusivity, instead of investing in their own R&D and patent protection where the upside may be exclusivity and the down side may be inferior or unproven technologies.

Only time will tell, and I’m sure this author and many other commentators will be watching this closely.

Federal Circuit Gives GE LED Patents New Life in Suit Against AgiLight

May 30th, 2014 by Eric Lane No comments »

 

A previous post discussed AgiLight‘s summary judgment win at the district court level where the LED lighting developer’s products were found not to infringe two GE patents, U.S. Patent Nos.7,633,055 (’055 Patent) and 7,832,896 (’896 Patent)

Two other GE patents  - 7,160,140 entitled “LED string light engine” (’140 Patent) and 7,520,771 entitled “LED string light engine and devices that are illuminated by the string light Engine”(’771 Patent) - had previously been found not infringed in an earlier summary judgment decision.

The ’055 and ’896 Patents are entitled “Sealed light emitting diode assemblies including annular gaskets and method of making same” and “LED light engine,” respectively, and relate to LED string light engine structures and assembly methods.

GE appealed, and a recent decision by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment with respect to the ’896 Patent (and the two other GE patents) and affirmed summary judgment with regard to the ’055 Patent.

The Federal Circuit found the district court’s interpretation of the claim term “IDC connector” in the ’140 and ’771 Patents was incorrect and unduly narrow.  The district court limited it to a more specialized connector having four electrical terminals and a two-part housing that snaps together so the terminals pierce the conductor’s insulation.

The term should have been construed consistent with its ordinary meaning of “a connector that displaces insulation surrounding an insulated conductor to make electrical contact with the conductor.”

The issue for the ’896 Patent was whether the claim term “substantially ellipsoidal inner profile” means the entire inner profile of the LED lens must be substantially ellipsoidal or only a portion is substantially ellipsoidal.  The district court held that the entirety of the lens must be substantially ellipsoidal, and AgiLight’s product did not infringe because it included non-ellipsoidal, conical portions.

The Federal Circuit disagreed, observing that in the only embodiment disclosed in the ’896 Patent (in Figure 7, reproduced below) the bottom half of the lens is not ellipsoidal:

According to the patent, the inner profile 152 of Figure 7 is ellipsoidal.  It is undisputed that only a portion of the inner profile 152 (the part above the line at 152) is substantially ellipsoidal.  The bottom half of that inner profile (the portion below the line at 152) is not arguably substantially ellipsoidal.

Thus, there was a genuine factual dispute as to whether the AgiLight product includes a “substantially ellipsoidal profile” and summary judgment was improper:

A key claim term at issue with respect to the ’055 Patent was an “annular gasket,” which the district court had interpreted to require an opening in its center that is capable of sealing off its center area.

In the the ’055 Patent, this feature is shown in Figure 4, where the annular gasket 32 surrounds LED 16 before a generally hollow member (not shown) is sealed against the top of the annular gasket to fully enclose the LED.

The court determined that the AgiLight lens (shown below) is not an “annular gasket” because the inner surface lacks an “opening” as required by the court’s interpretation of the term.  The Federal Circuit agreed, noting that a concave inner surface cannot be an opening.  So GE will get another opportunity to prove infringement of three the four patents asserted against AgiLight.

In GE Wind Patent Fight Federal Circuit Affirms Wilkins Inventorship Story is Incredible

May 22nd, 2014 by Eric Lane No comments »

In previous posts (hereherehere, and here), I discussed a significant ancillary battle in the GE-Mitsubishi wind patent war.  In this entertaining sideshow, GE and a former employee, Thomas Wilkins, have been fighting over ownership of two of the patents involved in the larger litigation.

The patent-at-issue in this case is U.S. Patent No. 6,921,985 (’985 Patent).  The ’985 Patent is directed to a wind turbine that includes a blade pitch control system and a turbine controller coupled with the blade pitch control system.  To increase the reliability of the turbine’s power supply, the turbine controller causes the blade pitch control system to vary pitch in response to transitions between different power sources.

After Wilkins brought a lawsuit to correct inventorship, Mitsubishi intervened in the suit.  The case aroused Mitsubishi’s interest because the ’985 Patent is one of several asserted by GE against Mitsubishi in at least two lawsuits.

After the district court decided that Wilkins was not a co-inventor of the invention claimed in the ’985 Patent, Mitsubishi and Wilkins appealed.

In a recent decision, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court ruling.

To overcome the presumption that the named inventors on a patent are correct, an alleged co-inventor must prove his inventive contribution by clear and convincing evidence.  The putative inventor can’t rely on his testimony alone.  Rather, there must be evidence to corroborate his testimony.

The problem for Wilkins was that the district court found his testimony on inventorship not credible, and the proffered corroborating witness testimony fell short because the witnesses either relied on Wilkins or failed to provide ample basis for their opinions.

On appeal, Wilkins acknowledged his credibility problems but argued that the instances in which his credibility was impeached only extended to “immaterial and tangential points.”  The appeals court disagreed:

Based on the trial record, we find no clear error in the district court’s assessment that the substance of Wilkins’s testimony, which addressed central issues such as conception and contribution, was inconsistent and purposefully evasive.  We agree with the district court’s conclusion that Wilkins left his case with no credibility.

As it turned out, this wasn’t an issue of insufficient corroborating evidence of inventorship.  Rather, as the court explained, the document Wilkins sent to GE’s German engineers, which he argued demonstrated his conception of the invention, did not disclose any elements of the claimed invention:

Notwithstanding that the record is devoid of proof that the German engineers relied on anything discussed in that document as part of their conception . . . our review of the record verifies that the document does not disclose any of the subject matter claimed in the ’985 patent.

In fact, the document in question “does not even depict the key feature Wilkins claims to have invented, i.e., a UPS powering the wind turbine’s three controllers.”

Therefore, there was no credible evidence of Wilkins’s conception:  ”Wilkins provided no credible testimony for that document to corroborate” and “without credible testimony from Wilkins, there was nothing to corroborate.”

This chapter in the GE-Mitsubishi patent litigation appears to be closed.