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Schneider sues Opto 22

Chicago, Ill.—Wherever two or more gathered during National Manufacturing Week 2001, March 5-8, their discussion involved patents. As reported in Control Engineering, Feb. '01, p. 32, Schneider Electric Automation (North Andover, Mass.) followed news about its minority investment in Entivity by announcing an open auction on the web for its patent, "Device for Communicating Real-time Dat...

By Gary Mintchell, senior editor, gmintchell@cahners.com January 1, 1970

Chicago, Ill. —Wherever two or more gathered during National Manufacturing Week 2001, March 5-8, their discussion involved patents.

As reported in Control Engineering , Feb. ’01, p. 32, Schneider Electric Automation (North Andover, Mass.) followed news about its minority investment in Entivity by announcing an open auction on the web for its patent, “Device for Communicating Real-time Data Between a ProgrammableLogic Controller and a Program Operating in a Central Controller.” Among other things, this patent includes using OPC to fill a spreadsheet with data from a PLC. [As of March 15, only one bidder was recorded—an $8 million contingency bid. Some interpret the relative silence as support against enforcement of the patent.]

Litigation

Topping this announcement, Schneider filed a patent infringement lawsuit Feb. 26 against Opto 22 (Temecula, Calif.). The lawsuit alleges that Opto 22’s Ethernet Brain products and associated industrial automation systems infringe on Schneider Electric patents concerning web and network-accessed controllers. See Control Engineering Online ‘s Daily News desk archive for March 1 at www.controleng.com.

At the time, Opto 22 vice president Bob Sheffres stated, “We feel the charges are with out merit and will defend ourselves vigorously in this matter.”

Rather than getting sympathy as a technological leader whose products are being unfairly duplicated, Schneider Electric’s announcements seemed to meet universal antipathy at NMW 2001. Control Engineering editors traveled the show talking with exhibitors and attendees without hearing any supporting comments for the plaintiff. Added to this, discussion on the Automation List has been peppered with suggestions for Opto 22’s defense.

Ironically, Ken Crater’s company, Control.com (Westborough, Mass.), sponsors the Automation List. Mr. Crater is the original patent holder for one of the patents involved in the Opto 22 suit. He has also been an industry visionary on Internet and web applications. He is also a leading proponent of the Puffin PLC project, an effort to develop an “open source” controller modeled after the success of other open source software like Linux.

In defense of offense

On March 13, Mr. Crater finally posted a message on the list defending his patent as the only way a small company can compete with the major players. He expands, “Not having $1.5 million (not counting appeals) to pursue a patent suit, a small company develops plan B, and opens discussions with a couple of major companies regarding outright sale of the patent. After a long negotiation process, this produces an agreement with Schneider Automation and the small company receives a large sum of money, along with rights to use other Schneider Automation networking patents.”

Addressing “obvious and pervasive” arguments against the patent, Mr. Crater adds, “Complaints of ‘obviousness’ always occur after the fact, because every idea that comes into widespread use may seem ‘obvious’ to those who are using it, since it has been integrated into their experience.”

The other part of the patent story is that Schneider, which is an active member of the OPC Foundation helping develop OPC as an industry standard, announces after the work is done that it holds a patent for certain uses of OPC. There has been no official public response from the OPC Foundation, yet, but several sources indicated ongoing negotiations.

Meanwhile, engineers in the field, trying to keep their plants running, are left wondering what will happen with useful technologies they have been using.