GE Wins Shot at Voiding Pratt Patent in Jet-Engine Clash

  • Patent office says it will review validity of Pratt patent
  • GE has ‘reasonable likelihood’ of invalidating patent: agency

General Electric Co.’s arguments that United Technologies Corp. obtained new patents on decades-old jet-engine technology may have some merit after all, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

A three-judge panel said Thursday it would take a second look at a patent obtained by United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney unit in 2013, after deciding that GE had a “reasonable likelihood” of winning its legal argument. Challenges against other Pratt patents are pending.

The dispute opens a new front in the battle between the engine giants over the global market to power narrow-body jets. GE has filed more than a dozen petitions with the agency, claiming that the Pratt patents were invalid because they covered ideas that date back to the 1970s. GE also has a pending challenge against a patent owned by Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc for a part of a gas turbine engine.

Both sides will get a chance to submit further legal arguments, and the Patent Trial and Appeal Board will issue a final decision in about a year. The losing side can then challenge that finding with an appeals court in Washington that specializes in patent law.

“Pratt & Whitney will vigorously defend” the patents, the company said in an e-mailed statement. “After long disputing the feasibility of a geared engine, GE’s actions confirm the fundamental advantages of Pratt & Whitney’s GTF engine design.”

GE said this is “the first step” in its effort to invalidate a number of patents that it believes were improperly granted. “These concepts were well-known in the industry long before patents were sought on them,” the company said by e-mail.

Latest Setback

The decision is a blow for Pratt, which spent $10 billion developing its new geared turbofan engine to take on GE. Pratt’s turbine has faced a cooling issue and problems with error alerts, generating criticism from a customer of Airbus Group SE’s A320neo jet. The plane is offered with engines from either Pratt or CFM International, a joint venture of GE and Safran SA.

Pratt, in filings with the patent office, said GE is wrong in its interpretation of what the patents cover and relies on improper hindsight to argue that they don’t contain anything new. Instead, GE is relying on arguments that were already considered and rejected during the original application process, Pratt said.

Pratt President Bob Leduc has said the company has about 3,500 patents on its engine, and GE is going after a small number of broad ones.

“We think they went after the most generic patents, but the magic of the gear is in the details, not in the generic,” he said in a June 7 interview. “We are adequately protected, we believe, from an intellectual-property perspective.”

Little Different

The patents challenged by GE were all issued since 2011 and relate to the way gas turbine engines are built. In several instances, GE said it’s little different than what it developed with NASA in the 1970s. 

Other challenged patents cover things like the fan casing of an engine or a geared turbofan. None of the patents are involved in lawsuits, according to GE’s petitions, indicating that there may be a behind-the-scenes dispute or GE is looking for bragging rights.

GE submitted additional petitions challenging more Pratt patents in April, and even more on June 28. Those cases are pending an initial review by the agency.

The Patent Trial and Appeal Board, where the petitions were filed, has become known as a “death squad” for patents because of the high rate of rejection. It’s easier to invalidate a patent at the agency than in district court because different standards are used. The Supreme Court on June 20 upheld the review process used by the agency.

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