What kind of business methods can become "property?"
Patent lawyers will fight that one out in May at the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Amicus briefs are due shortly: over
the next week, we can expect a barrage of legal briefs regarding In re Bilski; or more completely, In re Bernard L. Bilski and Rand A. Warsaw. The patent case is likely to have a big impact on business method and software patents; the case is being closely watched by the patent bar and has garnered some mainstream press coverage as well.
A very different debate over business methods and intellectual
property is going on in St. Paul, Minnesota, but Bilski and his co-inventor Warsaw are at the heart of that one, too. Investigators at the Minnesota
Attorney General's office say that WeatherWise USA,
the company they co-founded in 1996, devised billing programs that helped two local energy companies dodge state regulators and overcharge
consumers by $33 million.
On this blog, I'll write a few "Behind Bilski" posts to take a more in-depth look at the people and organizations that have a stake in the Bilski case.
Today: The view from Minnesota, and that state's connection to WeatherWise.
In February 2007, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson filed a complaint at the state's Public Utilities Commission against Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, which both have contracts with WeatherWise to provide fixed-price billing programs for natural gas customers. (OAG Complaint)
State attorneys say WeatherWise set the rates in both programs, severely overcharging consumers through programs that were marketed and promoted in a misleading way. One customer saw her gas bill jump from 79 cents to $4.18 per day after joining Xcel's program, and wasn't allowed to cancel; an 88-year-old fixed income Xcel customer had a July gas bill of $221, or $7.13 per day, and wasn't allowed to get out of the program until "after she passed away. (see OAG complaint, pgs. 4-7)
According to the PUC, WeatherWise provided marketing assistance to both companies, helping to set up the call centers that enrolled customers and assisting with promotional materials. However, WeatherWise is not a named party in the PUC complaint; state utility regulators have no authority over them.
Lawyers at Attorney General Swanson's office declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. In October, Xcel Energy was ordered to hand over tape recordings of conversations between fixed-bill customers and a call center apparently operated by "WeatherWise or its agents." (OAG 8/21/07 comments, p. 14)
The energy companies are admittedly ignorant about WeatherWise's methodology, which the company keeps secret. “The
Commission should not permit the underlying mechanisms of these
programs to remain shrouded in secrecy," wrote Swanson. "If the
programs cannot be operated with transparency, they should not operate
at all.” (OAG Complaint, p. 14)
According to the A-G's complaint:
- CenterPoint Energy first contracted with WeatherWise in 2001, when Bernard Bilski was still CEO. (he left the company in 2003, when Rand Warsaw took over). In 2005-06, customers in CPE's “No Surprises Bill” program paid an average of $296 more than they would have under standard billing.
- Xcel Energy ran a WeatherWise program for only one year, fiscal 2005-06. Xcel customers whose rates were set by WeatherWise paid an average of $682.76 more than they would have otherwise.
The $26 million over-charge cited in the original complaint didn't include Xcel's overcharge of about $7 million; hence the $33 million total. (PUC Staff brief, May 2007)
The PUC ordered the programs shut down in July. (PUC order, 7/16/07)
WeatherWise CEO Rand Warsaw says the high charges were the result of a streak of mild weather, and the company has done nothing wrong. Energy company clients are able to audit WeatherWise’s data, and they’ve handed over everything the A-G has asked for. “Every dime of our transactions are accountable and explainable by weather and price,” he told me in a recent interview. “All of this has been explained in Minnesota. There is no data that we have not made available.”
Warsaw wrote to the PUC chairman in July 2007 promising cooperation, but did worry that “any disclosure of our methods or modeling information to the public could diminish some or all of the value of our intellectual property.” (Warsaw's letter)
State attorneys saw it differently. Swanson said WeatherWise “knew full well it was a focus of the investigation, [and] a major reason for delay, and that the OAG would be in contact with WeatherWise to receive more data.” (Footnote, pgs. 6-7, A-G's 8/21/07 comments)
Consumer advocates say letting an out-of-state private company set rates allowed energy companies to profit while dodging state regulators.
“It really made rate-making a secret process for this little group of people,” said Chris Duffrin, Assistant Director of Minnesota’s Energy CENTS Coalition. “WeatherWise sets an inflated amount of usage, to make sure that the gas company doesn’t lose money. It’s a premium program, but they don’t really market it that way—that’s part of the problem.”
The Public Utilities Commission meets this Thursday, April 3, to review the status of the investigations.
More on the case:
- Minnesota case dockets, search for docket numbers CI-07-541 and CI-07-542
- Pittsburgh's Webb Law Firm, representing Bilski, has a page with the relevant briefs
- The Board of Patent Appeals 2006 rejection of the Bilski application
- WeatherWise does hold one patent, on their EnerCheck conservation system
- Bilski, Warsaw, and four other WeatherWise employees are named as inventors on two other pending patent applications related to "capped billing" systems; one filed in 2002 and the other in 2003.