I’ve been splashing around in the US Patent Office Records (as reproduced by Google. Much better interface than USPTO, IMHO) in an effort to get a sense of the territory surrounding home thermostats and related devices. As a home owner, I have a love/hate relationship with my programmable thermostat. I love that it can be programmed and I can save energy, but I hate that it has such a crappy interface and once it’s programmed with some schedule, the last thing I want to do is update it, even if I can save energy and money by doing so. Anyhow, the Tale of the Programmable Thermostat will be told another day. Today, I want to tell a different story of patents and litigation.
There is a company called Sipco LLC, based in Georgia, that owns a handful of patents that cover mesh networking. On the news page of their website they advertise licensing agreements with many companies, including GE Appliances & Lighting Business Unit, Hawking Technologies, Intermatic. They also talk about David Petit (Owner, Inventor) and his awards and accolades. Mostly though, they talk about who they are suing for patent infringement. The list of companies is long, so I can’t go into all of them. The case that sparked my interest is ongoing between Sipco LLC and Control4 Corp., Digi International Inc., Schneider Electric Buildings Inc., and Schneider Electric USA Corp. There were a few other ones to start, but those companies settled out of court (likely came to some licensing agreement). The thing that struck me was the complaint against Digi. Digi makes Xbee and Zigbee wireless transcievers, among other things, and I love thier devices. My student’s at Parsons love their dievices, and from what I can tell DIY’ers and Hackers around the world love their devices. So I’m quite interested in the outcome of this case. The parties are still in pre-trial litigation. This process has already taken years (initial complaint filed in May, 2010). Currently, they are stuck in a battle over disclosure of documents that Digi has requested as a part of it’s counter suit. That’s right, Digi is fighting back. Sipco doesn’t want to turn over the documents that Digi is asking for, and so Digi has asked the court to compel Sipco to deliver the documents. All three defendants mentioned above are answering Sipco’s complaint with similar defences, namely that Sipco defrauded the USPTO during the patent process by not including prior art (stuff and patents that folks have already done) which renders the Sipco patents ‘obvious’ or otherwise unpatentable.
This is super important stuff, considering the rise of ubiquitous computing and the need for micro and adhoc networking devices in data acquisition and instrument control applications, as well as large installations like Smart Grid implementations that some power utitlites are employing, like the stuff SmartSynch is doing. SmartSynch is also involved in a different patent suit brought by Sipco over the same patents in the Digi suit.
Now, if Sipco, and Mr. Petit, actually are the rightful owners of the technology then they should be compensated by companies using the technology, and that compensation should be negotiated in good faith by all parties. In all of my research, I have not found that Sipco makes anything. They appear to exist solely in order to sue for profit. That’s why I’m calling them creeps.
The arguments that Digi, Control4, and Schneider are making in their counter suit are very damning. If they hold up, it will wreck Sipco, and unravel their agreements with other parties. The heart of the argument is that the patents should not have been granted because prior art renders them obvious. In other words, mesh network structures are and were known, and some or all of the technology is in the public domain.
I’m going to dig further into the structure of Digi, et al’s defense and talk about it here as a way to learn about patents, and patent law.