Patenting Orbital Tech and Techniques

Orbital Operations are patentable subject matter, while the orbits themselves likely aren't.

Orbital Operations are patentable subject matter, while the orbits themselves likely aren’t.

When it comes to orbits, what is patent-eligible? A requirement of 35 U.S.C. 101 is that “Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.”

As an orbit in and of itself is a natural phenomenon, it can not receive a patent. However, “useful systems which incorporate particular orbits, such as technological solutions for providing telecommunications which utilize equipment in those orbits, are patent-eligible.”

So what does this mean for up and coming players like Planet Labs, Planetary Resources, and SpaceX compared to long time spaceflight companies like Boeing?  Find out by reading Becky Ferreira’s article on Motherboard where I shared my thoughts on the future of orbit-related patents.

Patenting Orbits? It’s all part of the Process

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.

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The Worldwide Rights are Not Enough

"I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that. Your license only applies on Earth, not outer space."

Pierce Brosnan declared the plot of his 1999 James Bond film The World is Not Enough convoluted and mystifying, a suitable description of Cold War villain-based movies more than a decade after the Cold War had effectively expired from hypothermia. At first glance, “convoluted and mystifying” is also an apt description for licensing deals. The beauty of a license is also its curse. You can make the license look almost any way you want, granting virtually unlimited rights or giving only the slimmest of rights to use the covered invention in Palatka, Florida on the 3rd Tuesday of every month. It is extremely important to consider each and every word in a license agreement in terms of how the technology involved will actually be used. For example, consider the following language that might appear in an R&D contract for the development of a new type of RCS thruster for satellites: the Satellite Manufacturer “shall retain a nonexclusive royalty-free license [to the developed technology] throughout the world.” What good does a merely worldwide license for a new RCS thruster do a satellite manufacturer? They need a license that actually applies to where they will use the developed technology: outer space. Continue reading

Patent Rights and Obligations under SBIR Grants, Part 2 of 2

In 2011, NASA used the SBIR program to funnel over $150 million to small business to carry out research and development. Phase I grants of up to $150,000, Phase II grants of up to $1,000,000, and follow on Phase III grants are available to qualified companies. Since 1982, nearly 18,000 companies have participated in the SBIR program and over 67,500 patents have issued on SBIR-funded technologies. SBIR grants represent a great way for small aerospace companies to receive research and development dollars. Many of the technologies NASA wishes to develop through SBIR grants are directly in line with or closely related to the development paths of commercial spaceflight companies. Because these technologies are closely related to technologies small commercial spaceflight and space services companies wish to develop, ideally companies participating in the SBIR program will retain patent rights or a license to utilize the technologies they have developed under an SBIR grant. Luckily, NASA’s SBIR contracts include the contract provision FAR 52.227-11, which provides a clear path for retaining IP rights in SBIR funded technologies. Continue reading

SIPROC 2: The Canfield Joint

US Patent Number 5,699,695
Inventors: Stephen L. Canfield, Charles F. Reinholtz, Robert J. Salerno, and Anthony J. Ganino.
Assignee: Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties, Inc.
Status: Expired.

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! Continue reading