Litigious Home Control

By Adam Stone

October 05, 2006

Lutron tends to sue any company stepping on its home control patents. Will ZigBee be next?

If lagging consumer adoption doesn't put the brakes on wireless home control and automation, the gaping maw of litigation very well might.

A report from West Technology Research Solutions suggests that the prospect of patent-protection lawsuits could keep aspiring vendors of wireless home automation technology on the sidelines, at least over the short term.

"[T]he issues surrounding patent protection activities of key players in this market become critical to the success of any one implementation of networking technology," the authors write.

When the authors write about patent protection activity, they're talking about Lutron, a lighting control company with a daunting history of patent litigation. (Lutron did not participate in the study.)

"Lutron may single-handedly be responsible for the slow adoption of wireless control in the home," according to the report. "Every patent suit initiated by Lutron in the U.S. has been won by Lutron. The company’s conquests include Leviton, Cooper Wiring, Genlyte, Vantage. A case against Control4 is still in litigation and has not been resolved." [This paragraph edited on 10/6/06 to indicated Control4 status.]

The key technology here involves the two-way wireless control of lighting, according to Kirsten West, president of West Technology Research Solutions and principal analyst on the report. A key component in making wireless lighting operate smoothly and easily, the two-way technology is locked up tight under Lutron's patent, a fact that already has stymied some in the home-automation arena and could pose problems for others.

"Lutron Corp. owns numerous patents in the lighting area, and they also are quite aggressive about protecting their intellectual property rights," says George West, senior analyst at West Technology Research Solutions. This combination of solid patents and the willingness to fight may be having a chilling effect on the industry overall. "The Lutron IP defense seems to be one of the things that companies look at that makes them say, 'Maybe we should avoid this area.' "

Even without the looming threat of patent litigation, there would be plenty of compelling reasons for companies to steer clear of home control and automation, or at least to proceed with extreme caution. The technologies involved are said to be unreliable, the report notes. Home control technology is expensive and hard to install, and the industry still lacks an easily identifiable value proposition.

Add to this Lutron's daunting track record of blasting anyone who treads on its IP toes, the West report suggests, and it soon becomes to come clear just why the promise of in-home wireless control has failed to captivate the market.

Things could change, though, at least for some leading players in the wireless control business. The Wests say Insteon's combined wireless/power line solution should be safe from a Lutron challenge, as would systems using one-way rather than two-way communication.

Of special concern is the status of ZigBee's high-level communication protocols, which the West report singles out as being in particular peril. The risk of IP litigation "could extend to include anybody who tries to do wireless control with ZigBee," George West says. With ZigBee gaining prominence as a leading standard within the community, this prediction, if true, could have a ripple effect throughout the home control and automation sector.

"There is a real and significant risk that companies implementing ZigBee lighting profiles to produce end products, as well as those producing Z-Wave lighting control products, will be the next target of Lutron," the report predicts.

Not everyone is responding to the news with cries of alarm, however.

While officials at the Zigbee Alliance say they have not yet seen the full report, their early take on it is that things may not be nearly so dire as they appear on the surface.

"Lutron owns patents for design, how to design a light switch, but it doesn’t own the actual technology to do it. It doesn’t own the mesh networking protocols or the Zigbee standards," says Kevin Schader, spokesman for the Zigbee Alliance.

Nor does a string of successful lawsuits make any one company the keeper of the keys in the realm of wireless control, Schader says. "A lot of companies own a lot of things," he says.

Or at least they think they do.

For those who are not quite sure that they own their IP, George West has some succinct advice. "Get a patent attorney," he says. "Make sure you are protected."

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