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By Peter Leung
Sept. 16 — British Gas Trading Ltd. prevailed over prepaid utility metering systems Sept. 16 when the High Court of England and Wales invalidated a patent that identifies each meter with a unique number ( Meter-Tech LLC v British Gas Ltd.  EWHC 2278 (Pat) (UK)).
The court ruled that plaintiff Meter-Tech LLC's patent is invalid due to a lack of inventive step, known in the U.S. as obviousness.
According to Meter-Tech, the decision affects BG's rollout of 16 million smart meters in the U.K., a contract worth about 600 million pounds ($785.2 million).
Meter-Tech is the exclusive licensee of a patent covering a way of using prepaid utility meters equipped with cellular transceivers. Each meter has a unique associated location identifier number and memory for storing prepaid credits. According to the patent, the system allows users to buy credit for electricity remotely and have that credit sent to their respective meter using the identifier number.
Meter-Tech sued BG, claiming that the BG's smart meters infringe the patent. BG attacked the patent's validity, claiming that it lacked an inventive step.
The court agreed with BG. It said that Meter-Tech's claimed inventive step—the use of a unique identifier number for each meter in the system—would have been obvious to person skilled in the art in light of both the state of the technology at the time and the specific pieces of prior art that BG presented.
At the time the patent was filed, prepaid utility meters usually required users to buy credits at a store, the court said. The credits were loaded onto an electronic device associated with the user's account number, which was then plugged into a meter to upload the credits. The meters themselves had serial numbers.
It would have been obvious to use a number, such as a user account number or meter serial number, to credit accounts, as some systems did, the court said. Given the state of technology at the time, using an identification number to credit accounts is “one of the most natural things to do,” it said.
At the time of the invention, every meter used in the U.K. had a serial number, the court said. Though Meter-Tech argued that power companies did not have complete records of those numbers, that fact alone does not make the patent's use of identifier numbers non-obvious.
The court also found the patent obvious when compared to various pieces of prior art. One piece was an article describing a remote credit management system for electricity, which includes a database containing information such as all the meters' serial numbers. A person skilled in the art would understand that this database would include information that could be used to uniquely identify each meter, the court said.
Daniel Alexander, sitting as a deputy High Court judge, decided the case. Hugo Cuddigan, Christopher Hall and Williams Powell represented Meter-Tech. Roger Wyand, Richard Davis and Mathys & Squire LLP represented BG.
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