Have the patent wars come to cleantech?

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.

To read the rest of my report check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required).