Patent fight looms in marine electronics - Trade Only Today

Patent fight looms in marine electronics

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Honeywell claims multifunction displays from Furuno, Navico and Raymarine infringe on its technology

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In the midst of one of their worst sales periods ever, three of the major marine electronics companies have been sued by aerospace giant Honeywell, accusing them of patent infringement. The technology in question is far from obscure, and the dispute goes to the heart of how boaters use multifunction displays for navigation.

In December, Honeywell International filed suit in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, alleging that Furuno, Navico and Raymarine had violated five Honeywell patents related to aircraft navigation. A trial is months away, as the parties engage in the usual skirmishing that often leads to a pretrial settlement.

Honeywell has asked the court to permanently bar Furuno, Navico and Raymarine from infringing on the patents in question, naming several multifunction displays, a satellite compass and navigational software sold by the companies. The lawsuit asks for damages "adequate to compensate for defendants' infringement in an amount to be proven at trial, together with interest and costs."

Honeywell did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview with its intellectual property chief about the lawsuit. Executives for the three marine companies would say little about the case either, though one, who declined to be named, characterized Honeywell's claims as "bull - - - -."

That reference was asserted legalistically in separate pleadings filed earlier this year as the three defendant companies answered Honeywell's federal court complaint. According to these pleadings, not only have Furuno, Navico and Raymarine not infringed on Honeywell patents, but the patents themselves were invalid because the "inventions" either already existed or had been patented by others before Honeywell. The defendants also asked the court to order Honeywell to reimburse them for "wrongfully incurred" costs resulting from the litigation.

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Furuno's lawyers say they will show that Honeywell's inventions are "mere aggregations of parts, steps, means or elements which were matters of common knowledge in the art to which the patents relate." Furuno's lawyers also say the wording of at least one of the Honeywell patents was so vague as to be meaningless, technically speaking.

One of the technologies most recognizable to boaters would probably be the one titled the "Learning Autopilot." This 1998 patent describes an autopilot that steers a "vehicle" on a preprogrammed route or set of waypoints. Effectively, Honeywell is claiming to have invented waypoints. In that, Honeywell has "overreached," according to Larry Anderson, vice president of marine electronics company Maretron.

Anderson is not party to the lawsuit, and he has worked in the marine industry for 47 years. He headed the committee that the developed the NMEA 2000 open standard for electronics integration and was once Raytheon's marine operations manager for Europe, long before Raytheon spun off this division, which became Raymarine.

Anderson says the concept of a "learning autopilot" existed long before 1998 and was incorporated in the products sold by "multiple companies," including one that Anderson worked for at the time. "That feature has been around for 20 years," he says. "In the early 1990s we had waypoints and we had routes, which could be stored and later used to drive an autopilot."

In addition to the "Learning Autopilot," three other Honeywell patents also suggest features found on most of today's multifunction displays. The remaining patent, titled "True North Heading Estimator," appears relevant to the Furuno SC110 satellite compass because, of the three defendants, Furuno alone is accused of infringing on this patent.

The Honeywell lawsuit has spawned a question that none of the marine electronics insiders interviewed for this article could answer: Why not Garmin? Why wasn't the fourth big player in the electronics industry also accused of infringement? Garmin's multifunction displays work pretty much like those of Furuno, Navico and Raymarine.

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Garmin declined to comment when asked that question and declined to say whether Garmin had licensed technology from Honeywell or had any business relationships with Honeywell, given that Garmin has an aviation division as well as marine and automotive divisions.

With no one among the parties commenting, it is difficult to ascertain what effect the Honeywell suit might have on the much smaller defendant companies - on a scale with nuisance at one end and catastrophe at the other.

Andrew Teich is president of FLIR Commercial Systems. FLIR Systems Inc. acquired Raymarine in May for about $180 million (see story on Page 14). Garmin had also submitted a bid. Teich would not comment on the lawsuit except to say that both FLIR Systems Inc. and Garmin were aware of the Honeywell lawsuit during the bidding.

Given that the Honeywell litigation was not a deterrent to the buyers, the matter probably comes closer to nuisance than catastrophe. Teich's answer also suggests that litigation is a fact of corporate life and that a $4 billion company such as FLIR/Raymarine has the resources to defend itself - even against the $32 billion giant that is Honeywell.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.

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