Communications Satellites on Legal Collision Course

ViaSat 1 Satellite on display

A beauty shot of ViaSat-1 at SS/L, where is was built. Technologies used in this satellite are now the subject of a brewing dispute. Image credit: SS/L

Space Sysems/Loral (SS/L) has a long, successful history of building commercial satellites. Nearly 50 years ago, they built Courier 1B, the first active communications satellite. Fast forward to the present and we find that SS/L is producing communications satellites for a variety of companies, including a single satellite, the ViaSat-1, which can provide 12Mbps internet connectivity for nearly 1 million people in the US. ViaSat, Inc awarded SS/L the contract to construct ViaSat-1, ViaSat’s first satellite, but ground-based trouble has arisen in the form of a patent dispute. On February 1st of this year, ViaSat filed suit alleging that SS/L copied proprietary and confidential technologies ViaSat disclosed during the development of ViaSat-1. Allegedly, SS/L integrated these technologies into a competitor satellite SS/L was building, the Hughes Jupiter satellite. ViaSat also alleges that SS/L is infringing at least four of ViaSat’s patents, including a patent on the placement of Earth-based transmission stations in relation to end users, which issued the day before ViaSat filed suit. SS/L, owner of approximately 160 patents on satellite and related technologies, has counter sued, alleging that ViaSat has infringed SS/L patents and arguing that ViaSat’s patents are invalid because Lockheed Martin actually invented the technology and ViaSat may have neglected to mention that fact to the Patent Office while it was trying to secure its patents!

With a few narrow, about to disappear exceptions, in order to receive a patent, the person(s) applying for the patent must have actually invented the technology in question first. In the case of the battle between ViaSat and SS/L, SS/L argues that Lockheed Martin actually first invented the technology ViaSat claims as their own. In the late 90s, Lockheed was developing the AstroLink satellite system. AstroLink never got off the ground, but plans for the satellite were filed with the FCC, making them publically available prior art. In their countersuit, SS/L alleges that ViaSat personnel knew of the relevant AstroLink technology because they personally reviewed the AstroLink specifications in 2000, eight years before a patent application allegedly claiming that technology was filed by ViaSat. According to its countersuit, SS/L argues that this and other ViaSat patents involved in the lawsuit should be declared invalid because “ViaSat…did not disclose the Astrolink-Phase II system to the USPTO and instead fraudulently withheld it in breach of the duty of candor it owed to the USPTO.”

Hughes Jupiter Satellite

An artist's conception of the Hughes Jupiter-1 satellite once it is deployed.

The Jupiter satellite containing allegedly infringing technology is scheduled to launch later this year. ViaSat has stated they will not try to prevent the delivery of the satellite to major competitor Hughes Network Systems, even though they think it infringes no less than four of their patents. This seems to be an act of good sportsmanship on the part of ViaSat.

SS/L CEO Michael Targoff has also remained civil and willing to compromise in order to save his company’s business relationship with ViaSat. In an April 11 interview with Space News, Mr. Targoff said that SS/L and  “ViaSat should be willing to lay down arms in the interest of sparing both companies a costly legal battle that will not serve either’s long-term interest.” He also expressed disappointment that ViaSat CEO Mark Dankberg “never picked up the phone” to call him and discuss ViaSat’s issues. However, in a Teddy Roosevelt-esque “speak softly and carry a big stick” statement, Mr. Targoff  noted that SS/L is marshalling a team of lawyers and is prepared to fight a multiyear, legal battle which could easily cost tens of millions of dollars.

Let’s hope that both sides find a way to settle their disputes and get back to the more interesting business of building and operating next generation communications satellites.

Happy creating!