Smart Meter Patent Suit Survives Silver Spring’s Indefiniteness Challenge
Mesh Comm is an Atlanta, Georgia, company and the owner of U.S. Patent No. 7,379,981 (’981 Patent) relating to a system for enabling wireless communication between meters so utilities can remotely monitor and control energy usage.
Entitled “Wireless communication enabled meter and network,” the ’981 Patent is directed to a wireless network comprising (1) a “network cluster” of at least two networks, with each composed of individual wireless transceivers called “virtual nodes” that measure, collect, and transmit utility usage data, (2) a “virtual gate” or “VGATE” that links the virtual nodes to an external network, and (3) a “virtual network operations entity” or “VNOC,” that transmits, receives, and translates data from one format to another.
The patented technology operates on Bluetooth wireless protocol but is designed to overcome the limitation that Bluetooth networks can support a maximum of only eight devices. The system solves this problem by linking two or more Bluetooth devices together to form network clusters.
In fall 2009 Mesh Comm sued PEPCO, a utility, and Silver Spring Networks, a California smart grid solutions developer, in federal court in Maryland, alleging that certain wireless communication enabled meters and networks the defendants were making, using, and selling infringed the ’981 Patent (MeshComm_Complaint).
Last month the court construed 24 patent claim terms and denied defendants’ summary judgment motion challenging claim 1 (the only asserted independent claim) as being invalid for indefiniteness under Section 112, paragraph 2 of the Patent Act (MeshComm_Opinion). This provision provides that patent claims must “particularly point out and distinctly claim” the subject matter of the invention.
It’s hard to determine which side got the better of the claim constructions because there were so many terms at issue, and most were construed in accordance with the express language of the ’981 Patent.
As to the indefiniteness ruling, defendants challenged the claim term “associated with” in the phrases “self-configuring virtual node associated with the first network” and “a wireless communication connection between at least [one] virtual node associated with the first network and at least one virtual node associated with the second network.”
The court rejected defendants’ contention that ”associated with” was indefinite because it has multiple possible meanings, holding instead that the term can be given a meaning in light of the ’981 Patent’s claims and description. The court construed the term to mean “wirelessly connected to.”
The court also held the term “module” was not indefinite because references to the term in the ’981 Patent convey the requisite structure for performing the claimed functions.
So this case appears to be moving forward. This is not the first time Mesh Comm has asserted the ’981 Patent against smart meter makers and utilities. Mesh Comm has sued E.On, Louisville Gas & Electric, and Trilliant in Kentucky, Landis+Gyr and Oncor Electric in Texas, and EKA Systems and Tampa Electric Company in Florida.
Furthermore, Mesh Comm, apparently a non-practicing patentholder (NPP), is not the first NPP to make its presence felt in the smart grid space. Sipco LLC, another Atlanta-based owner of wireless communication network patents, sued Florida Power & Light as well as a number of smart meter makers for patent infringement.
Eric Lane is a patent attorney at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps in San Diego and the author of Green Patent Blog. Mr. Lane can be reached at email@example.com.
photo: Tom Raftery.
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