Archive for March, 2012
Space. The Final Frontier. Where does that final frontier begin though? In your mind? 100 km up? Right here on Earth? Part one of “Where is Space?” discussed the pros and cons of legally defining space in terms of physical properties. Today, we’ll talk about determining where space law applies via two alternative approaches: functional and by fiat. From an intellectual property prospective, defining when and where space law applies is important because the United States has specific laws applying patent law to inventions used in space!
Ask a four year old “Where is space?” and they will likely reply “Up there!” Look in the Outer Space Treaty or virtually any other US law relating to space for a definition of “where is space?” and you’re not going to do much better than the four year old’s answer. Obviously the Earth ends and space begins somewhere but today, as it has been for the entirety of humanity’s manned and unmanned exploration of “up there”, there is no international legal definition of space; no clear indication of where space law applies! This ambiguity is a potential source of confusion and unease for aerospace companies and space farers because different nations (or the same nation) may apply different laws to the physically identical vehicles and flight profiles and may attempt to apply their laws to satellites in orbits that overfly their soil. Read the rest of this entry »
US patent #5,699,695 issued on December 23, 1997 and could have been in force until May 2016. Instead, the “robotic carpal wrist” structure, better known as the Canfield Joint, the patent disclosed entered the public domain on December 26, 2001! Like everything else in the public domain, the public is free to make, use, and sell their own versions or copies of the Canfield Joint. So what happened, why didn’t Professor Canfield get the full twenty year patent term? Read the rest of this entry »
In May 1997, Dr. Stephen Canfield submitted his PhD thesis entitled “Development of the Carpal Wrist; a Symmetric, Parallel-Architecture Robotic Wrist.” A patent application was also filed on this novel joint, better known in aerospace circles as the Canfield Joint, resulting in US patent number 5,699,695, issued December 23, 1997. This awesome little joint allows complete hemispherical movement for attached devices. Constellation’s CEV might have used Canfield joint-based solar panels and RCS thrusters, had it not been cancelled. Real-world prototypes of Canfield joint-based RCS thrusters have even been built! Read the rest of this entry »
Like many industries where there are a significant number of new entrants, many emerging aerospace companies seem to approach intellectual property in a very focused manner that just skims the surface of available protections. This kind of approach is seen a lot in software-related industries where the magic behind a company’s product is computer code that the end user cannot access. While these sorts of products lend themselves to the gossamer protections of trade secret law, patent and copyright law also provide additional product protections and add value. Many once-young software and internet-related companies such as Google have come to recognize the value of patent protection for their product offerings. Google’s patent portfolio has helped establish its market dominance in mobile computing and ward off attacks from other companies. Some up and coming technology companies, like Facebook, are currently experiencing the pain of a narrowly-focused intellectual property protection policy. They have found that defending their innovations in a Spartan fashion against legions of their competitor’s patents is not the best position to be in.
Adopting an intellectual property protection policy that is broad-based, relying on more than simple trade secret law, places both large and small companies on firm legal ground, adds value to the company from an outside investment point of view, and recognizes that different technological solutions call for different IP approaches. Read the rest of this entry »
The US patent system is designed to encourage inventors to promptly file for patent protection if they plan to take advantage of the patent system at all. Although it may seem like a great business model to secure a twenty year period to exclude your would-be competitors from making your invention once they actually show up, the patent office generally frowns on people commercially exploiting their unique product for years and then filing for protection once they have sighted their competitors! In order to avoid this kind of anticompetitive behavior, a number of conditions have been laid down in patent law called statutory bars. If one of these statutory bars occurs, such as publicly using the invention, an inventor has one year to file for patent protection, or the inventor loses their right to domestic patent protection.
There is a problem here, however: what if your invention is huge, or flies through the air, or both? What if you need to test it outside in order to determine if it actually works? Fear not! For the experimental use exception may apply! Read the rest of this entry »
Over the past few years, there have been rumblings out of SpaceX about the usefulness of nuclear-powered spacecraft. Given that SpaceX wants to send its rockets to Mars, they believe a nuclear-powered upper stage is an ideal way to accomplish this, and many manned Mars mission proposals have included the use of NERVA, a nuclear thermal engine developed by NASA in the 1960s, it’s plausible that a nuclear-powered Falcon XX rocket might wing its way to the Red Planet one day. I know this statement breaks my engineer friends’ hearts but, assuming that the engineering problems with a nuclear-powered heavy lift vehicle could be overcome, there are still sizable obstacles in the path of our hypothetical rocket, specifically legal obstacles. The 1972 Liability Convention affects the planning and execution of virtually all space launches but has additional requirements for spacecraft carrying nuclear material. The 1992 UN Resolution on Nuclear Power Sources (“Nuclear Power Principles”) lays out guidelines and criteria for nuclear safety aboard spacecraft using nuclear material for “non-propulsive purposes.” What are these additional roadblocks in the path of our hypothetical nuclear rocket?
SpaceShipTwo has been going through a rigorous, sometimes difficult, flight testing process. While this somewhat public testing regime has been going on, the SpaceShipTwo family of vehicles have been trudging through the FAA launch licensure process. On Monday, SpaceShipTwo reached an important milestone in this journey, the FAA released a draft Environmental Assessment for the Launch and Reentry of SpaceShipTwo Reusable Suborbital Rockets at the Mojave Air and Space Port and has opened a window for request for comment on the plan. Read the rest of this entry »
I love what I do, but I have a confession. It was not always my dream to be a patent agent or even a lawyer. I never watched lawyer TV shows. I didn’t see “A Few Good Men” until half way through law school. 12 year old me might be a little disappointed with my current passions (I bet I could distract him with my tricorder-like iPhone though). So what did 12 year old me want to be when he grew up? A fighter pilot, a physicist, and/or a submarine captain. Actually, I still want to be a submarine captain! If I win the lottery or otherwise become filthy rich I will likely do a couple of things: buy a submarine, donate a huge pile of money to my alma mater’s physics department, and become more directly involved in a private commercial space company. In my flight of fancy, it occurs to me that there is a way to combine all three of these dreams of mine: nuclear-powered spacecraft!
In my opinion, nuclear-powered spacecraft are one of the most promising technologies available for real, low-cost, reliable space access. I think nuke-powered spacecraft could form the backbone of a space-based economy. Why? Power-to-weight and MPG. Read the rest of this entry »