Litigious Home Control


Senior Member
If lagging consumer adoption doesn't put the breaks 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 for 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 they authors write about patent protection activity, they are talking about Lutron, a lighting control company with a daunting history of patent litigation. (Lutron did not participate in the study, the authors said.)

"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, and now Control4."
By Adam Stone October 5, 2006
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 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," said 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 said. 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 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," said 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. "A lot of companies own a lot of things," he said.

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 said. "Make sure you are protected."
It may be FUD however the report WTRS issued is fact based and provides extensive detailed information regarding the issue. What I think was the most extreme statement quoted - without permission BTW - regarding Lutron was later changed to:

"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.]

Aside: There was poor editing on our part in addition to some other issues external to WTRS. Anyone that really wants the full boring story drop me an email.

We also had no input about the tone or slant to the article. We just participated in an interview. We don't even go out of our way to propose articles about reports that we issue.

Chris Walker and I were chatting about the question of remote status at CEDIA and speculating about how companies might try and work around it, so there is at least some level of interest about the topic floating around. :rolleyes:

In reality I'm surprised about the response generated by this report. Typically when we release a report and do a press release around it, within a week or two we get a note from the resale companies we work with about getting the relevant information to them. In this case I woke up to an email from one asking how soon they could get their copy since they had someone already requesting a purchase.

I just wish everything we write was this successful. In that case, I could get the embargo on more HA equipment purchases lifted...

George West
West Technology Research Solutions
Thank you for that info, George. This issue does, however, show how patents and their enforcement can stifle innovation, in as much as the basics of two-way radio control are pretty fundamental to control systems and many other devices.

For example, how does this apply to a device such as an all-in-one wireless phone/PDA that now offers Bluetooth, WiFi, IR and other forms of wireless control to remote devices? Will Lutron move to take on the large communications companies if they have a possible lighting control app on their phone offering?

It will be very interesting to see how this all plays out, but in the meantime it does prevent a lot of smaller players and I dare say innovators from entering the market, and everyone suffers as a result.

I'd be interested in hearing the details of the actual patent and legal argument. I wonder if we could adapt a hobby plane remote servo control to do the job? hehe