Thermostat spat puts old heat on new cool
By Reynolds Holding
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
A patent spat over thermostats is putting old heat on new cool. Honeywell this week accused Nest Labs of stealing its ideas – though some seem obvious. Whether that proves to be the case or not, the upstart outdid the old-line firm by making a temperature controller of Apple-like elegance.
The dispute seems almost quaint in an age of patent suits over cutting-edge technology like smartphones. But thermostats have come a long way since a Honeywell predecessor invented them in 1885. Nest’s version learns users’ temperature preferences and uses “natural language” questions to change settings. Its simple, circular casing was designed by Tony Fadell, a creator of Apple’s iPod.
But Honeywell says it obtained patents on these and other features as far back as 2005. In a federal court complaint, it boasts of its well-known thermostats, including a circular design exhibited in the Smithsonian museum. It claims Nest must have known of those designs yet copied them anyhow.
The trouble is that many of the features seem obvious. Natural-language questions, for example, are used in all sorts of devices, from DVD players to exercise machines. And a basic rule of patent law is that only non-obvious inventions can be protected. Meanwhile, photographs in Honeywell’s complaint only emphasize its uninspiring designs.
That doesn’t mean Nest will necessarily defeat the lawsuit. Courts need “clear and convincing evidence” that a patent is obvious before they will declare it invalid. That’s a high standard. But Honeywell isn’t home free either. Nest says it didn’t know that Honeywell had a beef until the lawsuit was filed. If true, that means no attempt was made to negotiate a license or other arrangement. A court may look unfavorably on that.
Legalities aside, there’s a question about whether Honeywell is simply trying to put Nest out of business. If so, Nest would not be the only loser. Consumers would be deprived of an innovative product, while Honeywell’s reputation would surely suffer. A better response would be for Honeywell to use its considerable resources to leapfrog Nest’s device. When new companies come up with a better product, older ones should flex competitive muscles before legal ones.