United States: GE, Vestas Battling In A Technological Field They Dominate

  • GE and Vestas are now one year into patent litigation that has the potential to impact the U.S. wind turbine market. The parties reportedly control more than 80% of the market between them.
  • The patents at issue claim inventions in the field of controlling wind turbine generators. GE and Vestas are the preeminent patent owners in this field.

This week marks one year since GE filed a patent lawsuit against its main rival in the U.S. wind turbine industry, the Danish company Vestas A/S. In the past year, GE has modified its patent infringement allegations; Vestas has denied infringement, alleged inequitable conduct by GE when obtaining the patents, and counter-sued GE for infringing Vestas' patents; and both parties have filed challenges to each other's asserted patents with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (see here and here). The litigation in federal court was also recently put on hold to await the outcome of those challenges at the PTAB.

A recent review of the four patents at issue in the case (two owned by GE, two by Vestas) reveals that these patents are in a common technological field that is dominated by GE and Vestas. This is perhaps not surprising: with GE and Vestas reportedly controlling more than 80% of the U.S. wind turbine market, it might be expected that they would also dominate a technological space that is critical to the wind turbine industry.

Every patent application is assigned a "classification code" that identifies the relevant technological field of the application. Classification codes can be used to group patents and assign them to patent examiners with expertise in the relevant field. Each of the four patents at issue between GE and Vestas is assigned the International Classification Code H02P. [Note 1]. This classification identifies the patented inventions as belonging to the technological field of "control or regulation of electric motors, electric generators, or dynamo-electric converters; controlling transformers, reactors or choke coils."

A general search for patents in this classification shows that GE is the 3rd-ranked patent owner in this technological field, behind only the global automotive components manufacturer Denso Corporation and electronic products manufacturer Mitsubishi Electric Corporation. [Note 2]. Vestas ranks 26th on the overall list of patent owners in H02P. However, filtering the H02P classification for patents specifically directed to the control of wind turbine generators (as opposed to all electrical generators) reveals that GE and Vestas are the dominant parties in this patent space:

Figure 1. Top Patent Owners for Control of Wind Turbine Generators

Although some patents in this technological field are based on applications filed in the early 2000's, companies like GE and Vestas began filing in earnest only in the last 8-10 years:

Figure 2. Patent Filing Year for H02P [Note 3]

It should be noted that GE probably did not select this technological field for its litigation with Vestas based on GE's strength in the patent space. Rather, the asserted patents were more likely chosen for their pedigree: these same patents were used against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in an earlier lawsuit that resulted in GE being awarded $169 million in damages. The parties later settled the case, with Mitsubishi reportedly agreeing to largely withdraw from the U.S. wind turbine market. Should GE achieve a similar result here, it would be positioned improve upon its already strong market share.

Footnotes

[Note 1] One of the patents at issue (GE's U.S. Patent No. 6,921,985) is additionally assigned the International Classification Code F03D, which indicates a technological field of "wind motors."

[Note 2] All data discussed in this blog post was pulled from the InnovationQ database at www.ip.com.

[Note 3] The declining number of patents for years 2012-present does not necessarily indicate a declining interest in this technological field. Rather, patent applications filed during those years likely remain pending and under examination at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Those pending applications are not counted as patents in Figure 2.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.

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