Archive for category Patents
Last week, we discussed the pros and cons of doing your own patent search and what goes into the different parts of a patent application. This week, let’s get into the journey a patent application makes once it is filed.
For many inventors, engineers, and emerging technology companies, condensing a flash of genius into a new invention or engineering a solution to a problem is the easiest, most familiar step in the patenting process. The climb up the US Patent Mountain, as it were, can be a long, treacherous one. Or it can be a quick sprint, if you’re willing to pay the Patent Office extra fees. With that in mind, let me be your patent Sherpa, explaining the process and walking you through the general steps.
The patent process extends from before an application is filed until the patent expires. We can think of the patenting process as a mountain climb where the patent issues once we reach the summit. But just like an Everest climb, where most deaths occur on the way down the mountain, more than 50% of issued patents expire before the end of their 20 year term. What does the rest of the journey look like? Read on!
Patentable subject matter includes “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” That’s the patent law way of saying essentially anything new under the sun made by the hand of man is potentially patentable! There are, of course limits to what can be patented. Laws of nature (E=mc2), physical phenomena (ice is less dense than liquid water), and abstract ideas (let’s go to Venus on a spaceship!) are not patentable. Applications of these patent ineligible areas may receive a patent. For example, patented technologies used in GPS satellites would not operate without utilizing Special and General Relativity.
Orbits may be, at a minimum, part of a process for accomplishing a task. Patentable subject matter includes processes! So new orbits/orbital maneuvers can be patent-eligible if used for some useful purpose. It is important to keep in mind however that the orbits themselves aren’t patented, technological solutions for providing telecommunications which utilize equipment in those orbits are patent eligible.
No man, no industry, no new technology is an island. Our understanding of the universe and our ability to manipulate our surroundings via technology is possible only because we, as Isaac Newton put it, are “standing on the shoulders of giants.” The pace of innovation in many fields, the software field in particular, has led to development after incremental development being built upon technologies that have barely made it to market, creating overlapping intellectual property rights which are allegedly choking innovation. These “dense web[s] of overlapping intellectual property rights”, or patent thickets, require that companies must license technologies from multiple sources in order to bring a new product to market.
Many people fear that the commercial space industry will be condemned to the same “innovation-choking” state of affairs as our sector matures. If history is any guide, however, neither the software industry nor the future booming commercial space industry will be necessarily bogged down in perpetual patent wars.
Aladdin’s genie had “Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty-bitty living space!” Space Act Agreements (SAAs) are very similar. They give NASA considerable flexibility to partner with private entities. NASA can start from essentially a blank slate in order to create an agreement aimed toward a specific goal like using the International Space Station as a national laboratory or developing robotic vehicles capable of delivering supplies to low earth orbit. On the other hand, SAAs may not be used in many circumstances. For example, funded SAAs are typically used only where a NASA objective cannot be achieved through the use of traditional contracts. When SAAs are used, The Chiles Act may force NASA to take ownership of any intellectual property developed under the SAA. However, there are ways to avoid the title taking action. Even when NASA does take title to the IP, many SAAs provide a clear path to returning ownership of patents and other IP that is developed under the SAA to the private developer.
In celebration of NASA’s amazing, successful landing, check out these Curiosity rover patents! Congratulations to everyone at NASA, JPL, CalTech, Malin Space Science Systems, SwRI, ULA and everyone else involved in making this mission such a success!
Above is US design patent #D505,105 “Skycrane Landing System.” It covers the ornamental design of the celebrated skycrane!
Keeping secrets is bad for relationships and the USPTO feels secrets are bad for patents as well. In fact, the Patent Office doesn’t like secrets so much that they have a special rule against hiding the ball during the patent application process, Rule 56.
The Patent Office requires “each individual associated with the filing and prosecution of a patent application” to disclose any all information they have which is material to the patent application in question.
This rule is serious business. The highest paid attorney ($900+/hr) I have ever met built his practice around Rule 56 disclosures. Why? Because failure to disclose known prior art under Rule 56 can invalidate an otherwise perfectly valid patent, destroying hard won competitive and technological advantages.
Rule 56 is part of the USPTO’s broader carrot-and-stick approach to producing better patent: on one hand, if you fail to disclose key information during the patent application process, your patent may end up being an invalid, worthless piece of paper. On the other hand, anything you disclose to the Patent Office will be considered during the application process. Any resulting patent will be granted with a presumption that the patent is valid in light of the information considered during the application process. This presumption can lead to a significantly stronger, more valuable patent.
Even though it doesn’t have any legs (yet), Robonaut 2 is making great strides on the International Space Station. After months of resting comfortably in the newly installed Permanent Multipurpose Module, Robonaut 2, or R2 as it is more affectionately known, has taken a giant leap for robot kind. On May 2nd, R2 began serving the ISS crew in its mission to perform tasks which are too dangerous or mundane for ISS astronauts to perform. The semi-autonomous robot’s first task is to monitor air velocity from station vents. This is perhaps a lowly beginning for space robots, but a necessary step for the currently legless anthropomorphic creation.
R2 is the product of a successful development partnership between automotive giant GM and space exploration behemoth NASA. In addition to flying the first humanoid robot to space, more than 40 patents and patent applications have blossomed from the R2 development program. Like many other private company/government agency relationships, the partnership between GM and NASA was heavily influenced by federal laws that govern the agency involved. GM and NASA entered into a Space Act Agreement (SAA). The structure of the SAA was chosen in part to ensure that GM could protect and retain an interest in the intellectual property they developed while working with NASA on next-generation robots.
Ellipso, Inc. was founded to develop and launch communications satellite constellations situated in elliptical orbits. By placing the satellites in specific elliptical orbits closer to the Earth than geosychronous orbit (GEO), Ellipso hoped to offer lower cost satellite communications, including low cost voice, data, facsimile and geolocational services. For a time, things went quite well for Ellipso. Boeing and L-3 Communications designed and developed the satellites. Boeing was awarded a $1.4 billion contract to construct Ellipso’s satellites. Arianespace agreed to provide launch services for the would be 17 satellite constellation in addition to investing in the satellite company. Unfortunately, like other private satellite companies of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ellipso ran out of money before it could get hardware to space and was forced into bankruptcy. In order to pay off its creditors, Ellipso’s assets are being sold off. In fact, Ellipso’s intellectual property portfolio is being auctioned off by IpAuctions this month!
In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus’ lightning, hid it in a hollow stalk, and gave that fire to humanity. His generosity toward man led to personal regret later. Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock where he died a painful death only to be resurrected the next day to endure more mortal agonies. Let’s take another look at the Prometheus story from a modern, patent perspective. Ignoring, for the moment, the wrath of a vengeful king of the gods, could Prometheus have profited from introducing humanity to fire by securing a patent on everyone’s favorite chemical reaction: combustion? Alas, no. Poor Prometheus would have found this path a difficult one as well. Where an invention or discovery is new, useful, and non-obvious the patent system will generally grant patent protection to “anything under the sun that is made by man.” And therein lies the rub for poor, would-be fire patentee Prometheus. Patents will not be granted on laws of nature, physical phenomena, or abstract ideas but applications of such principles are fair game!