GE v.USITC and Mitsubishi (Fed. Cir. 2012)
Wind turbine technology is coming into its own. GE and Mitsubishi are both global leaders. Mitsubishi imports wind turbines into the US, and GE filed a complaint with the US International Trade Commission (USITC) alleging infringement of three patents. Patent Nos. 7,321,221, 6,921,985, and 5,083,039. The '039 patent expired in 2011 and, because the USITC's only remedy is injunctive relief to stop ongoing and future infringement, the court has dismissed all charges associated with that expired patent.
During its proceedings, the USITC Administrative Law Judge found the GE patents infringed, enforceable, and "not invalid." However, patents are only enforceable at the USITC if there is a "domestic industry" for the claimed invention. 19 U.S.C. § 1337(a). The statute specifically requires a US industry that can show "with respect to articles protected by the patent" significant investment in plant and equipment; employment; or investment in exploitation, "including engineering, research and development, or licensing." The ALJ found a domestic industry, but the full Commission rejected that finding and additionally held that Mitsubishi did not infringe the '221 patent.
Win for GE: In a decision penned by Judge Newman and joined by Chief Judge Rader and Judge Linn, the Federal Circuit has affirmed-in-part, vacated-in-part, reversed-in-part, and remanded. Overall, this is a win for GE because the appellate court ruled that a domestic industry exists in relation to the '985 patent and it appears that the USITC already agrees that the '985 patent is valid and infringed.
USITC Domestic industry jurisprudence is a mess. Here, the basic question boiled down to whether there is at least one claim – GE's wind turbines are would infringe the claims in its asserted patents. That decision obviously turned on claim construction and particularly whether GE's domestic turbines included a "converter controller coupled with the inverter … to shunt current from the inverter." The problem with GE's domestic turbines is that its controller is within the inverter and the Commission held that it could not therefore be "coupled to" or shunt current "from" the inverter. On appeal, the court rejected that analysis and instead held that the claim does not require that the controller be separate from the inverter.
A similar argument was rejected in NTP, Inc. v. Research in Motion, Ltd., 418 F.3d 1282 (Fed. Cir. 2005), where some of the claims recited a receiver "connected to" or "coupled to" a processor or that the receiver "transfers" information to the processor. The accused infringer in NTP had argued that "connected to," "coupled to," and "transfer from" each requires the receiver and the processor to be separate, but the court concluded that "the two components could be connected, joined, or linked together by wires or other electrical conductors and still be located in the same housing or even on the same circuit board." 418 F.3d at 1310-11. The court also held that the function that information is transferred between two entities does not require physical separation of the entities. Id. at 1310.
Based upon its corrected claim construction, the Federal Circuit was able to conclude that claim 15 of the '985 patent "covers the domestic industry turbines" and that GE therefore has a right to bring an action on the patent in the ITC.
- GE filed a parallel lawsuit requesting damages and injunctive relief against Mitsubishi in the Southern District of Texas That case has been stayed pending the outcome of the ITC action. In a separate case, GE is fighting with one of its former employees — Thomas Wilkins who is claiming joint inventorship rights to the patents. Wilkins has apparently assigned his rights to Mistubishi.