Before we get into the new news, let’s take a quick look back at the top green IP stories of 2014.
5. GE Wins Ownership of Key Wind Patent
In what was something of a sideshow, but with major implications for the main event, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit effectively ended a dispute between GE and a former employee, Thomas Wilkins, over ownership of one of the patents involved in larger litigation with Mitsubishi.
After Wilkins brought a lawsuit to correct inventorship of U.S. Patent No. 6,921,985 (’985 Patent), Mitsubishi intervened in the suit. The Federal Circuit ultimately ruled for GE because the document Wilkins argued demonstrated his conception of the invention did not disclose any elements of the claimed invention.
In fact, the court held, 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.”
4. Tesla’s Chinese Trademark Troubles
Tesla’s eco-mark issues in China were resolved, renewed, and resolved again in 2014. Early in the year, Tesla said it had obtained a court decision granting it the right to use the TESLA mark in China over a cybersquatter and prior registrant of the TESLA mark named Zhan Baosheng.
A few months later, Mr. Zhan sued Tesla for trademark infringement in China, demanding the American electric car maker stop all sales and marketing activities in China, shut down showrooms and charging facilities, and pay him 23.9 million yuan ($3.85 million) in compensation.
Shortly thereafter, Zhan apparently got his pay day when Tesla resolved the dispute – this time via a direct settlement rather than relying on the Chinese court system. Zhan agreed to settle the dispute “completely and amicably” including consenting to cancellation of his Tesla trademark registrations and applications. He also agreed to transfer his domain names, including tesla.cn and teslamotors.cn to Tesla.
3. GreenShift Loses Big in Ethanol Patent Case
2014 saw a major decision in the patent infringement litigation between GreenShift (with its New York subsidiary, GS Cleantech) and a host of ethanol producers across the midwestern United States over patented ethanol production processes.
After multiple actions were consolidated in the Southern District of Indiana and the claims of the key patent family were construed and re-construed, the court issued a sweeping 233-page decision ruling on all of the pending motions for summary judgment brought by the original parties to the suit.
GreenShift lost big, with the court making several rulings on infringement, all for defendants. Worse yet for GreenShift, the court held three of the four patents in the key patent family invalid because of the company’s commercial offer to sell the technology more than a year before the August 17, 2004 filing date of the initial provisional patent application that led to the other applications in the family.
2. Record Settlement Under Clean Air Act for Alleged Greenwashing
After their reputations took a beating in 2012 under a barrage of consumer class actions alleging false or misleading fuel efficiency claims, last year the Korean automakers entered into a record settlement with the U.S. government amid additional allegations of greenwashing.
The Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) sued Hyundai and Kia, alleging they sold over a million vehicles that did not meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act because the automakers used improper testing procedures and analysis and submitted faulty fuel economy data to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Hyundai and Kia quickly settled with the DOJ and CARB. Under the settlement, the automakers did not have to admit the truth of the allegations but agreed to pay about $100 million, about $93.6 million to the DOJ and about $6.4 million to the CARB. This is the largest penalty ever imposed under the Clean Air Act.
The car companies also forfeited 4.75 million greenhouse emission credits – earned for building vehicle emissions under the legal limit – which they had previously claimed and are estimated to be worth over $200 million.
1. The Tesla-Patent Commons
The biggest green IP story of 2014 was Elon Musk’s announcement that Tesla would “donate” its entire patent portfolio. Specifically, Musk’s post on the company blog said “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”
In the wake of the announcement, more details emerged about Tesla’s patents and the technologies covered. Reaction to the move was mixed, with some arguing it was a public relations stunt that would ultimately hurt Tesla.
In my post on the announcement, I wondered whether the temptation of exploiting Tesla’s technology would outweigh exclusivity concerns:
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 what, if any, impact Tesla-Patent Commons will have on the electric vehicle market.