You’re free to use this picture from Apollo 4 (Photo credit: NASA).
To date, the U.S. government has been a major player in space exploration, technology, and photos. Under 17 USC §105, all photos taken and shared by the U.S. government are not subject to copyright law and free to be used by the public!
But as more private entities are exploring space, and launching payloads and with a rise in social media and photo sharing, what Copyright Laws come into play?
But you’re not necessarily free to use this one! (Photo Credit: SpaceX)
For many, space is the final, and most exciting, frontier. From a legal standpoint, where that frontier actually begins is frustratingly hazy. As commercial entities and private citizens begin frequently visiting and operating in space, this legal haze threatens to spill over into the mainstream and constrain growth of the new space-based industries. Fortunately, there are at least three approaches to clarifying the legal definition of the edge of space!
Stephen Murphey and I have put together the above video discussing where space begins. The video details the three approaches taken in attempting to create an international (or national) definition of where space begins. The three approaches are: physical, functional, and definition by fiat. The physical approach is the most widely used in the popular press, but unfortunately, FOX and CNN are not government lawmakers! Continue reading
Traditional cost-plus and FAR contracting serves NASA well with traditional contractors when budgets were more flexible. In many areas where the contractor will do the majority of the development and innovation, traditional contracting approaches fail because NASA is a title taking agency. As a title taking agency, anything intellectual property developed under a traditional NASA contract belongs to NASA. Traditionally, this has discouraged innovative companies from working with NASA.
Under NASA’s COTS, CCDev and CCiCap programs, unmanned space freighters and astronaut-carrying space taxis are currently under development by several innovative companies. Substantial development has been done by these companies which are valuable from the perspective of working with NASA, but potentially more valuable in the commercial sector. The use of Space Act Agreements and providing a clear path to returning ownership of intellectual property to the companies doing the development has played a pivotal role in making these programs successful from NASA’s standpoint and from a commercial standpoint. Let’s take a look at the structure of these agreements and how they are being implemented.
Examples of remote sensing images collected by satellites. Image credit:NOAA.
Every satellite–from school bus-sized communications behemoths, to super-secret spy satellites, to tiny CubeSats–has to make it through a gauntlet of documentation and approvals before they ever fly. This is understandable since even something as small as a 1 kilogram CubeSat can pack a mighty wallop after it is accelerated to an orbital velocity of 17,000+ mph!
Satellites and other spacecraft have to be registered under the Registration Convention, launch range safety approvals have to be wrangled, and FAA licensure must be addressed.
Depending on the type of satellite being launched, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gets in on the game, too! Earth gazing and other remote sensing satellites, including CubeSats observing the earth, must pass a NOAA licensing process. The good news for CubeSat developers is that NOAA often goes out of its way to accommodate the needs of private satellite developers and operators.
Orbits may be part of a valid patent where the patent discloses and claims some new, useful, and non-obvious process or device, like a method for global telecommunications!
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.