Honeywell International Inc. claims Nest thermostat infringes on patents in federal court lawsuit

Michael Giberson

Economist Alex Tabarrok, author of Launching the Innovation Renaissance and Marginal Revolution blogger, worries that the proliferation of patents is stifling innovation, particularly patents for business processes. In an interview with Russ Roberts for EconTalk, Tabarrok remarked that large companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google building up massive numbers of patents mostly to insulate themselves from costly patent battles. One side effect of this defensive effort is that smaller innovators can themselves end up in costly patent battles when trying to innovate in the same product space.

Maybe Tabarrok has another example on his hands.

This morning Honeywell International, Inc. (market capitalization of more than $46 billion) filed a patent infringement lawsuit against little Nest Labs, Inc. (unknown capitalization, but backed by a number of venture capital firms). Honeywell is also suing retailer Best Buy which has a marketing arrangement with Nest Lab. (Prior link goes to the lawsuit. More: news release, reports by GigaOm, Mashable Tech, GreenWire, Dow Jones Newswires, and CNet.)

Honeywell asserts Nest infringed several patents: one for methods that use natural language to decrease the time and complexity of programming a thermostat, another for thermostats that indicate how long it will take to reach a desired temperature, another for a thermostat that relies on remotely stored data to manage energy costs, another three patents related to having a rotating portion of the thermostat set one or more parameters of the device, and finally, a patent for powering a thermostat by drawing power from one or more of the circuits controlled by the thermostat. All of the patents have been issued since 2005.

I have no insights into the workings of the intellectual property system, and I’ll spare you my unrefined attitudes on the matter. My only interest is in encouraging innovation that supports energy users.

RELATED, from Quora: What is it like to own a Nest thermostat?

BELOW, image of a Honeywell thermostat app running on a tablet computer.

Honeywell Total Connect Comfort Systems.
With a Honeywell Total Connect Comfort System you can sit in your dining room and adjust the room temperature settings for the master bedroom!

ALSO: Previously on KP, “Nest’s elegant learning thermostat — but is it transactive?

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8 thoughts on “Honeywell International Inc. claims Nest thermostat infringes on patents in federal court lawsuit

  1. I apparently confuse easily. It would seem to me intuitively obvious that a proliferation of patents would be the result of innovation, rather than having the effect of stifling innovation.

    I have no experience in moving thermostat patent applications through the USPTO. However, I have done so in other residential and commercial appliance and equipment technologies. It is almost certain that NEST had each of the patents Honeywell believes are being infringed cited in rejections by USPTO. If Nest holds issued patents on their technology, they at least convinced the patent examiner that it was unique. However, that does not mean that elements of their produce design not covered by any patents issued to Nest do not infringe patents issued to Honeywell.

    It is almost certain that Honeywell, before filing an infringement action, communicated its concerns to Nest. It is also highly likely that their were discussions regarding cross-licensing of technology, assuming that any aspect of the Nest design was both novel and commercially interesting to Honeywell.

    I understand that some may be fascinated with the ability to “play with” their thermostats remotely. However, thermostat “diddling” is rarely the path to energy efficiency or energy conservation. However, there have been thermostats available in the market for decades which “learn” from 15 minutes of instruction, rather than from a much longer period of experiential learning.

  2. Ed, you have *way* more faith in the patent process than I (or apparently, Mike) do. So many technology and business process patents border on the obvious or nonsensical. To my eye, some of the Honeywell patents verge on obvious.

    I agree with Mike that this lawsuit is yet another data point serving as evidence for the need to reform the patent system.

  3. Lynne,

    I still have the scars from the successful prosecution of 22 US patent applications, most recently in 1992. All of these patents were device and system, rather than component level, patents. Unless the process has changed dramatically, Honeywell had to fight for every claim in every one of the patents they now believe are being infringed by Nest. If Nest has a patent, which I could not determine from the USPTO website, Nest had to fight for every claim in their patent as well. In a well developed field of technology, such as residential and small commercial HVAC thermostats, with multiple major manufacturer participants, it is very difficult to obtain broad claims in any patent. It can also be very difficult to build a complete device, rather than just a component, which does not infringe on technology patented by some other developer.

    I have not studied the relevant Honeywell patents, so I cannot comment specifically on them.

    I would not argue that there is no need to reform the patent system, though we might not agree on the nature of the reforms.

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