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Summary:

Have the patent wars — that have dominated mobile in recent years — finally come to cleantech? And what does that mean for startups?

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Companies suing one another over patent infringement isn’t new — the mobile patent wars exploded last April when Apple fired the opening shot at Samsung over “slavish” copying of the iPhone and iPad designs. But what has followed has been a vicious battle of claims, counterclaims, defensive acquisitions to control patent libraries (Google’s purchase of Motorola, for example) and the ultimate nightmare for a company: an injunction resulting in a product’s being pulled, as demonstrated by the brief disappearance of the iPad recently in Germany.

Historically, cleantech has largely avoided such nastiness. That changed last week when Honeywell filed suit against Nest, the startup whose smart thermostat uses a variety of sensors to learn users’ behavior, which the company says results in energy savings of 25 percent. The suit alleges everything from infringement on the natural language installer setup to a patent on the thermostat’s “offset drive,” the rotating control ring around a fixed ring. The latter is the core mechanical design of the Nest thermostat.

The key difference between the Honeywell lawsuit and what is happening in mobile is that in mobile, established, multibillion dollar companies are fighting one another. In the Honeywell lawsuit, a company with over $46 billion in market cap is going after a startup that is trying to disrupt and innovate a very staid home energy management space. Sure, Nest has the resources to defend itself, because Fadell’s success at Apple has attracted tens of millions in VC, but most smaller startups are not as well financed.

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  1. michael kanellos Tuesday, February 14, 2012

    Butamax v. Gevo. Westinghouse v. Solar. FIsker v. Tesla had trade overtones. Patent suits have been going on in green for years. Licensing from labs has expanded in the last ten years. The difference is that individuals and reporters are paying more attention to this suit because it involves Nest, and the Nest founders came from Apple. What has changed is the celebrity status of one of the parties.

    Disclosure: I’m a big believer in the patent system and think that most of the complaints about trolls are exaggerated. http://news.cnet.com/Why-I-love-patents-and-copyrights/2010-1008_3-6182429.html?tag=mncol;8n

    1. Michael, I agree that Nest’s profile has drawn attention to patent lawsuits in cleantech and there have been prior suits in the sector. But the tact that Honeywell is taking, using extremely broad patents like asking a user “What temperature do you like when the heat is on” to learn their behavior, is a business strategy, not a means to protect valuable IP. People like James Bessen at BU Law School have been outspoken about how the number of patent lawsuits has tripled since the 90s, and while some of that is IP development a lot is an attempt sew up markets.

      In the end the solutions have more to do with creating a more knowledgeable US Patent Office that has a better understanding of what’s “non obvious” as well as a fair licensing system so that startups can move forward with tech development knowing they can access IP at a reasonable cost.

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