Patent infringement case remains a tangled web

In the April issue of CONTROL magazine, Managing Editor Steve Kuehn reports on how Solaia may have finally met its match now that it has faced off against Rockwell Automation in a U.S. patent court case.

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In a letter from a person identifying himself as an &ldquoindustry veteran who prefers to remain nameless,&rdquo (Start magazine &ldquoMail Call,&rdquo Jan. &rsquo03, p10) The &rsquo318 patent &ldquobasically patents a method for controlling a manufacturing operation using a spreadsheet add-on that talks directly to the registers in a programmable logic controller (PLC) without using the operating system or any I/O device.&rdquo He points out two big problems with &rsquo318: One, it&rsquos extremely narrow, and two, it had to be narrow to avoid a rejection based on a considerable amount of prior art&mdashsomething that anything patentable has to rise above to be granted.
Mr. Nameless offers a nicely succinct appraisal, but for a comprehensive analysis of the &rsquo318 patent on the record, the staff at High Tech Services (HTS), a North Carolina-based systems integrator provide a detailed appraisal on their website.

High Tech Services, founded by president by Keith Baldwin (who holds a Masters in integrated manufacturing systems and is a founding member of the CSIA) recommends that to better understand the problematic nature of the &rsquo318 patent it&rsquos instructional to understand what is patentable.

New and Useful
The U.S. patent office offers this: &ldquoIn the language of the statute, any person who ‘invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent,&rsquo subject to the conditions and requirements of the law. The word ‘process&rsquo is defined by law as a process, act or method, and primarily includes industrial or technical processes. The term ‘machine&rsquo used in the statute needs no explanation. The term ‘manufacture&rsquo refers to articles that are made, and includes all manufactured articles. The term &ldquocomposition of matter&rdquo relates to chemical compositions and may include mixtures of ingredients as well as new chemical compounds. These classes of subject matter taken together include practically everything that is made by man and the processes for making the products.&rdquo

The HTS analysis then quotes Roseman from the original patent application on a number of points but one stands out:

&ldquoThe invention furnishes a program or instruction means that operates through a general purpose spreadsheet program to effect information transfers to and from the addressable registers of a PLC and assigned cells of a displayed spreadsheet directly from the spreadsheet program and without transfers through the operating system program or a specially written device driver program.&rdquo

Says HTS, &ldquoWe don&rsquot see how using the specific words ‘PLC&rsquo or ‘spreadsheet&rsquo constitutes anything ‘new&rsquo or ‘improved.&rsquo &rdquo The systems integrator&rsquos analysis argues that &ldquoPLC&rdquo and &ldquospreadsheet&rdquo are nothing more than a type of computer and type of software that are communicating with each other.

&ldquoThere were other companies already making SCADA software that talked with PLCs at the time,&rdquo says HTS, and &ldquothat because computer programs were already talking to PLCs, uploading and downloading data, one might think that a claim about PLCs and spreadsheets would not hold up.&rdquo

The discussion of prior art doesn&rsquot end there either. According to HTS, people were already reading and writing data to/from real-time controllers and PLCs using databases. &ldquoIn fact, our records show that we were using an IBM PC to read and write databases in factory automation in 1984. [And HTS] worked with a group at Texas Instruments in Johnson City, Tenn. in 1985 that developed a system tying manufacturing databases into automated lines, controlled by PLCs.&rdquo

Narrow and Obsolete
A close examination of the ‘318 patent reveals that most, if not all of its discussion, as well as the drawings submitted, refer to Lotus&rsquo 1-2-3 spreadsheet program or a Lotus spread sheet cell. What HTS tries to carefully explain is that Roseman stresses the application of Lotus 1-2-3 @ functions to get PLC data directly to the spreadsheet.

High Tech Services summarized it all by saying Roseman used the Lotus development kit to write code that interfaced Lotus 1-2-3 to a Square D PLC. &ldquoIn our humble opinion, this is the only real claim that he can make&mdasha Square D PLC talking directly to Lotus 1-2-3 via @ functions.&rdquo Seems like a pretty narrow application.High Tech Services&rsquo analysis points out that Lotus 1-2-3 is no longer around and that that alone should be enough to void the ‘318 patent. And says HTS, &ldquo15 years later hardly [anyone] uses a spreadsheet, much less Lotus 1-2-3 to interface to PLCs.&rdquo

Finally, HTS says there was other SCADA software already developed that talked with PLCs. &ldquoHow could Mr. Roseman talk to other types of PLCs without device drivers?&rdquo the company&rsquos spokesman asks. Wrapping it up with a bow, HTS declares: &ldquoMr. Roseman's invention was to interface Lotus 1-2-3 directly to a Square D PLC. We can understand&mdashbut do not agree with&mdasha claim against anyone using Lotus 1-2-3 to read and write [to] Square D PLCs. All other claims seem completely unjustified.&rdquo

Click the Download Now button below for the full text of the Summary Judgment Decision in the ArvinMeritor/Solaia Case in pdf format.
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