Archive for August, 2016

Court Holds Grid Monitoring Patents Invalid; Collecting Info is Unpatentable Abstract Idea

August 30th, 2016

A prior post reported on the litigation between Electric Power Group (EPG) and Alstom Grid.

The lawsuit, filed in the Central District of California, alleged that Alstom’s “PhasorPoint” and “e-terravision” solutions infringed U.S. Patent Nos. 8,060,2597,233,843, and 8,401,710 (EPG Patents).

The EPG Patents relate to wide-area real-time performance monitoring systems for monitoring and assessing dynamic stability of an electric power grid.

More particularly, the patents describe and claim systems and methods for performing real-time performance monitoring of an electric power grid by collecting data from multiple data sources, analyzing the data, and displaying the results.

In an opinion issued earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held the EPG Patents invalid under Section 101 of the Patent Act for failing the test for patent eligibility.  The decision affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment.

Section 101 defines the subject matter eligible for patenting and, according to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, “contains an important implicit exception:  Laws of natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable” concepts.

Alice set out a two-stage Section 101 inquiry for determining patent eligibility.  Stage one asks whether a patent claim is directed to one of the three non-patent eligible concepts.

If so, at stage two, the court asks whether the particular elements of the claim add enough to “transform the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application.”

According to the Federal Circuit, because the claims of the EPG Patents are directed to collecting and analyzing information and displaying certain results of the collection and analysis, they “fall into a familiar class of claims ‘directed to” a patent-ineligible concept.”

More particularly, information is an intangible, and collecting information is an abstract idea:

[W]e have treated collecting information, including when limited to particular content (which does not change its character as information), as within the realm of abstract ideas.

Furthermore, the court found the patents’ improvement of focusing on specific content to be collected and analyzed not sufficiently innovative:

The advance [the EPG Patents] purport to make is a process of gathering and analyzing information of a specified content, then displaying the results, and not any particular assertedly inventive technology for performing those functions.  They are therefore directed to an abstract idea.

Turning to stage two of the Alice framework, the Federal Circuit did not find anything added to the claims or any limitations that would remove them from the realm of abstract ideas and make them patent-eligible.  Limiting them to the power-grid monitoring space was not enough:

Most obviously, limiting the claims to the particular technological environment of power-grid monitoring is, without more, insufficient to transform them into patent-eligible applications of the abstract idea at their core.

Much of the content of the claims of the EPG Patents, the court observed, was “devoted to enumerating types of information and information sources available within the power-grid environment.”  Merely selecting that information does not “differentiate a process from ordinary mental processes.”

According to the court, the claims did not require any inventive set of components or methods, such as measurement devices or techniques, do not generate new data, and do not invoke any inventive programming.  They also do not require anything other than off-the-shelf, conventional computer network and display technology.

Thus, the court held that the EPG Patent claims “do not state an arguably inventive concept in the realm of application of the information-based abstract ideas” and are therefore invalid.

The Federal Circuit closed its opinion with some tough words from the district court about the EPG Patents that allude to a public policy rationale for invalidating the patents:

[R]ather than claiming “some specific way of enabling a computer to monitor data from multiple sources across an electric power grid,” some “particular implementation,” they “purport to monopolize every potential solution to the problem” – any way of effectively monitoring multiple sources on a power grid.

Some might say that alone is reason to invalidate the patents.

Master of its Domain: Infringement Verdict Could Mean Dominion Dominance in Advanced Metering

August 19th, 2016

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Once in a long while a green patent lawsuit comes along that has the potential to have a major impact on a clean technology sector.

A few that come to mind are GE’s litigation with Mitsubishi involving, among others, U.S. Patent No. 5,083,039, a seminal patent on variable speed wind technology, Paice’s epic battle with Toyota over the hybrid vehicle technology used in the Prius, and the biofuels patent litigation between BP-DuPont joint venture Butamax and the advanced biofuels company Gevo.

We may have witnessed another one this summer, with the announcement last month by Dominion Voltage, Inc. (Dominion) that a jury found Alstom Grid infringed a Dominion patent relating to voltage reduction in advanced metering infrastructure.

Dominion filed an infringement complaint against Alstom Grid in January 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The asserted patents were U.S. Patent Nos. 8,577,510 and 8,437,883 (‘883 Patent), related patents each entitled “Voltage conservation using advanced metering infrastructure and substation centralized voltage control.”

The patents, one a continuation of the other, are directed to voltage control and energy conservation systems where a plurality of sensors sense voltages of the supplied electric power at distribution locations and generate measurement data based on the sensed voltages.

A voltage controller generates an energy delivery parameter based on a comparison of the measurement data received from the sensors to a controller target voltage band, and a voltage adjusting device adjusts a voltage of the electric power supplied at the supply point based on the energy delivery parameter.

If that concept seems broad to you, it is, and the folks at Greentech Media thought so too.  In this piece reporting on the lawsuit, GTM said the asserted Dominion patents “appear to hold pretty broad claim over the very idea of using distributed sensors for grid voltage management.”

According to GTM, the patented technology is embodied in Dominion’s commercial products and is pervasive in the smart meter industry today:

That’s the technology behind DVI’s EDGE control platform, now in use by utilities across the country, and using smart meters and networks from a list of vendor partners including Silver Spring Networks, Elster and Landis+Gyr.

And now at least one of the major commercial users of the technology has been found to infringe of the patents.  According to the Dominion press release, the jury in the lawsuit returned a verdict of infringement, finding the ‘883 patent valid and infringed by Alstom Grid (now owned by GE).

The jury also found that Alstom “induced infringement through the installation of its distribution management system at a customer location.”

Dominion is likely to seek an injunction to stop Alstom Grid from installing and using the infringing products.  However, these cases more often result in a license negotiated by the parties including some sort of royalty payment.

In any event, Dominion is now in a very strong position in the smart meter-enabled grid voltage control space.  According to GTM, which covered the jury verdict here, the company is the U.S. leader in this market and now “has a jury verdict to protect the technology behind that market dominance.”

Fiddler on the Roof: FTC to be More Active in Rooftop Solar?

August 9th, 2016

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The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been very active in combating greenwashers, those advertisers and marketers of green products and services that make false or deceptive claims of environmental benefits.

America’s consumer watchdog agency has addressed greenwashing in two ways.   First, the agency has attempted to preempt it through guidance to advertisers in its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, commonly know as the Green Guides, which provide a framework for green marketers to formulate permissible environmental benefit claims for products and services.

Second, the FTC has undertaken a number of enforcement actions against greenwashers, including against an LED manufacturer for misleading environmental benefit claims and a recent lawsuit against Volkswagen on behalf of consumers.

In a recent piece published on Law360, three attorneys from the WilmerHale law firm wrote that the FTC appears poised to take a more active role in the area of rooftop solar installations.

A workshop held by the FTC in June examined consumer protection issues in the rooftop solar industry, which operates amid a “complex matrix of laws, regulations, policies, subsidies and incentives.”

According to the article, the FTC believes it has the expertise to protect consumers of rooftop solar installations:

The FTC has taken the position that it is “uniquely positioned” to ensure that “consumers are well-informed about its pros and cons and the options available to them” regarding rooftop solar generation.

The agency, of course, has the authority to target deceptive advertising, and it noted at the workshop that the Green Guides are applicable to the marketing of rooftop solar installations.

Furthermore, the FTC has issued “Solar Power for Your Home” guidance for consumers and recently opened an enforcement action relating to allegedly illegal robocalls for solar marketing.

While a number of state officials believe primary regulatory responsibility for the rooftop solar industry should be on the state level, the article said, they recognize that the FTC could play a role in identifying best practices and consumer communication templates.

So we can expect to see more from the FTC to keep greenwashing in check as the rooftop solar industry expands.