Friday, 19 July 2019

The Role of Intellectual Property in Space Commerce

Buss Aldrin on the Moon in 1969   Author NASA  Reproduced courtesy of the US Government

Jane Lambert

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the United States Patent and Trademark Office ("USPTO") will hold an event at its offices in Alexandria, Virginia on 23 July 2019 between 14:00 and 16:30 local time entitled Apollo 50: The role of intellectual property in space commerceSpeakers will include Mr Jim Bridenstine who is the administrator or head of the US space agency (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)) and Mr Andrei Iancu who is the director of the USPTO.  According to the Eventbrite card, the event will focus on "space innovation, technology transfer from the Apollo missions, and an overview of the current administration’s policy on space exploration, commerce, and industry."  If I were in the USA next week I would have applied to attend that event and I strongly advise any readers who find themselves in the vicinity of the USPTO to do so.

American industry benefited greatly from the Apollo Programme in many ways.  One example is Black & Decker's handheld vacuum cleaner which is featured on the USPTO's website (see Laura Larrimore's article Moondust and Marketing Magic). That was the result of applying technology to develop cordless power tools that could be used safely by astronauts for everyday tasks in the home.  There are of course many other products that resulted from space exploration from quartz-powered wristwatches to building insulation though apparently not non-stick or Teflon frying pans as polytetrafluoroethylene was discovered in 1938.

Although some British businesses have participated in the US space programme as suppliers or subcontractors, most of the work was done by the US government through various departments and agencies or by American companies.  In the 1960s the only countries that could launch things and people into space were the USA and the Soviet Union.  There are now many other countries with space exploration programmes including the UK (see Wikipedia's List of Government Space Agencies).  Increasingly, space exploration is being undertaken by private companies (see Jason Perlow To the Moon: 50 years after Apollo 11, is SpaceX the new NASA? 17 July 2019 ZDNet).

As a result of those developments, there are now many more opportunities for British businesses (see London Economics Size & Health of the UK Space Industry 2018 A Report to the UK Space Agency January 2019).  Many of those opportunities will arise in Cornwall, particularly if Newquay airport becomes a spaceport for horizontal space launches (see Cornwall and Isles of Scilly press release Cornwall makes case for space to Westminster 20 Nov 2018).  A cluster of businesses to support the spaceport and the earth station at Goonhilly is already gathering.

That brings me to the title of this article.  British companies need to protect their investment in research and development just as much as American ones and we really should have a high-level conference on the role of IP here.  Unless and until we do, here are some pointers:
  • Unless and until they are ready to apply for a patent, they should take great care to keep sensitive documents under lock and key when not in use and to ensure that all staff, collaborators, suppliers and others do the same.
  • Any sensitive information should be disclosed in confidence with the terms of the disclosure set out in writing.
  • Monitor any disclosures and require the return of any documents and copies once the purpose of the disclosure has been met.
  • For suitable inventions, apply for patents not just in the UK but in all important markets and in the countries of your main competitors.
  • Never forget alternatives to patenting such as copyrights for software, database right, unregistered design right and trade marks for brands.
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