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Satellite killed by trajectory patent (wikipedia.org)
195 points by frabcus on May 20, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments

The patent in this case is simply getting the blame for a failed launch, as an excuse to collect insurance. This is like blaming a smoke detector patent on a building being burned to the ground to collect insurance. "We couldn't afford smoke detectors because they're patented, and we're in a lawsuit with a manufacturer"

It has nothing to do with the patent and everything to do with collecting insurance.

The fact that trajectories are being patented at all is what I took away from this. That's astounding in it's ridiculousness. I assumed that was why this was posted.

Your analogy makes no sense, the failed launch has nothing to do with the patent, the patent just stopped an attempt at saving the satellite. So more like the factory caught on fire and no firetrucks could come because a competing factory had patented the route from the firehouse.

Agreed, this whole patent nonsense has officially crossed over into dystopian sci-fi territory.

Steve laid down his MacPad Pro next to the water cooler and hailed Tom over. "Guess what, I took the A9 this morning, I don't know why I don't do it more often, no traffic, no headaches, pure bliss." Tom eyed him with a frown, waiting a couple of seconds before replying. "The A9? You have a family Steve, aren't you worried about them?" "What do you mean?" "Don't you know that entire route is patented? What happens if your plates' RFID tag comes up in a random check and they find out you haven't licensed it? The lawsuit would drag you under for sure."

Isn't this usually called a toll road?

nope - this would be a troll road...

Trajectories can be both useful and non obvious so I can see the patent angle. Think of it like this someone had to come up with this orbit 30 years after we started putting satellites in geosynchronous orbit's or the patent would have expired. And they only get to keep the patent for 20 years so any of the early 'gold rush' patents should have expired.

Patents are also required not to be discoveries. I claim the orbit existed long before the Boeing company was funded.

Unlike say genetic patents noting natural can make these maneuvers as they require one or more fuel burns to make the transitions from orbit A to orbit B.

So, can I patent route that ship takes through the ocean? Or air corridor?

There is prior art for most useful and static trade routes.

However, you could probably patent a system that uses real time satellite imagery to discover the location and magnitude of ocean currents, predict what they will be for the next week, and then calculate the the ideal routes for a fleet of cargo ships in real time. But, the patent is only going to last 20 years and shipping companies would probably just wait you out. Then again, I expect that patent probably exists and expired a long time ago.

Yeah, but assume I've patented the system for calculating etc, etc the route, and the patent had not expired yet.

If somebody else used the same equations I've used, but made the calculation on his abakus, and steered his ship by himself, he wouldn't infringe my patent, I think.

That's astounding in it's ridiculousness

Indeed, which is why it's not what happened. Repeat after me: you cannot patent an idea, only a mechanism for implementing an idea.

Except for business method patents.

I'll repeat it as much as you want, will that make business method patents go away?

The patent in question is for the idea of "moving a satellite" using the mechanism of a certain class of trajectories.

So how is this not what happened?

That is absolutely not the case, and I don't see how you could make that conclusion.

To draw an analogy, imagine your car runs out of gas near the top of a mountain. You put on the e-brake, and assess your situation. The nearest gas station is 20 miles away, and it's snowing, so there is no way you can walk it, and there is no other traffic on the road to offer you some help. Sucks to be you, but you should have planned better. You could let go of the e-brake, and roll down the mountain in reverse, but there is just a deserted valley at the bottom - it would not improve your situation. But, a ha! You realize that you are only 20' from the top of the hill. the gas station is still 20 miles away, but it's all down hill. If you can push your car to the top of the hill, you can then roll all the way to the gas station using gravity to power your car.

But, alas, a lawyer pops out of the woods, and hands you a document stating that you are not allowed to push your car up the hill and then use gravitational potential energy to get to the gas station, because Acme, Inc has been issued a patent on that process, and you are not allowed to use it without their consent. Coincidentally, you have an ongoing lawsuit against Acme, Inc, for a completely unrelated reason. They tell you "Drop this lawsuit, and we'll let you use our push-up-the-hill process to save your car".

That is pretty much what happened in this circumstance.

Yes, the engine failed to operate properly. No one is blaming the patents for that. The satellite got stuck in an unusable orbit due to the engine failure, but was otherwise still functional. Since launching things into orbit is very expensive, and the things being launched are very expensive, the company that owns the satellite will try pretty much anything within reason to recoup their costs. One option, popularized by Belbruno and Ridenoure from an similar incident in the past, involves using only a small amount of fuel, to send the satellite around the moon and back, which would make it possible to put the satellite into the correct orbit around the earth. THIS is what was denied them due to the patent on the low energy orbital transfer that Boeing apparently has. So, it is not the fault of the patent system that the rocket initially failed, but it is the fault of the patent system that the company was not legally allowed to recover it's still-functional property.

edit: I should add that, yes, SES Americom may have committed insurance fraud if they didn't disclose to their insurance company that the satellite was recoverable for $50M(the cost of dropping the lawsuit against Boeing). However, that doesn't change the fact that they were prevented from essentially running their engine at particular times due to patents.

> I should add that, yes, SES Americom may have committed insurance fraud if they didn't disclose to their insurance company that the satellite was recoverable for $50M(the cost of dropping the lawsuit against Boeing)

I'm pretty sure that insurance companies can't consider the estimated cost of a civil suit as a fungible asset like that. They could no more insist that SES comply if Boeing had asked them to kill Boeing's mother in exchange for a trajectory license. After all, it costs less than $50M to kill someone.

I agree. I am not at all certain how insurance contracts work, so I didn't want to speculate, but I also didn't want to leave out that possibly-relevant piece of information. Most likely, instead of offering a license in return for dropping the lawsuit, Boeing could just offer a license at the cost of what they expected to lose in the lawsuit(which is still around $50M). In that manner, the satellite would have been recoverable without any connection to the lawsuit.

Can you make an analogy that doesn't involve a felony crime?

A better analogy would be, your child was killed by a motorist who couldn't stop quickly enough because the car manufacturer was unable to license patented anti-lock braking technology. (hypothetically assuming anti-lock braking technology was not mandatory by safety standards and was one of several safer stopping methods.)

That would not be a better analogy because you are shoehorning in an emotional component as well.

I assure you, people get quite emotional about large sums of money.

In case you're wondering about patents in space like I was...

35 U.S.C. 105 Inventions in outer space.

(a) Any invention made, used, or sold in outer space on a space object or component thereof under the jurisdiction or control of the United States shall be considered to be made, used or sold within the United States for the purposes of this title, except with respect to any space object or component thereof that is specifically identified and otherwise provided for by an international agreement to which the United States is a party, or with respect to any space object or component thereof that is carried on the registry of a foreign state in accordance with the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.

(b) Any invention made, used, or sold in outer space on a space object or component thereof that is carried on the registry of a foreign state in accordance with the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, shall be considered to be made, used, or sold within the United States for the purposes of this title if specifically so agreed in an international agreement between the United States and the state of registry.

Could somebody that speaks legalese phrase that in standard English?

Basically, if the US can claim jurisdiction either by virtue of launch or nationality of components or by international jurisdiction, then the patents are enforcible in the US.

Not _exactly_ related, but...

As more and more Americans realize that there is a life after the USA, I have a feeling that we're going to see more and more jurisdictional straw-grasping by the US government.

Maybe I'm searching for a pattern where there isn't one, but this comes on the heels of them requiring tax payments of people who've expatriated, as well as seizing .com domains registered by foreign nationals at foreign registrars...

I've noticed that pattern as well and took the same thing from it as you did.

It does align with my natural bias however, so gotta be careful about confirmation bias.

It's obviously invalid to patent orbital trajectories. It's also obvious it would cost millions and take decades in court to fight it, and if you won the satellite would long since have ceased to be relevant.


I don't mean that sarcastically. The patent is not on the existence of a particular trajectory, nor on a basic law of physics. It's a patent on a process to move a spacecraft from one orbit to another by firing rockets at precise times.

I can't think of a reason why this would be more invalid than a "composition of matter" patent that is just a list of particular alloys of steel with special properties: after all, it's a law of physics that 18-8 steel has special properties, which was patented [1]. The patent was issued just on listing a mix of iron, 18% chromium, and 8% nickel. Many other special steel blends have been patented [2], even though their specialness is a function of natural properties of materials.

I'm not saying it's a good thing that this is patentable, but it's very far from "obvious" that it's not.

[1] http://www.estainlesssteel.com/historyofstainlesssteel.shtml [2] At random: http://www.google.com/patents?id=L0YhAAAAEBAJ&printsec=a...

> It's a patent on a process to move a spacecraft from one orbit to another by firing rockets at precise times.

What else would you suggest?

Well, the GSM patents [1] are a series of patents on particular ways to send wireless signals between handsets and base stations. I'm pretty sure that wireless radio is the only way to send signals from a cell phone, but that hasn't invalidated patents on particular methods of doing so.

Again, I'm not saying it's a good thing that this is patentable, but it's not "obvious" that it's not patentable if it's possible to patent (several times over) various ways of sending wireless signals from cell phones, or particular blends of nickel, chromium and iron.

[1] http://www.phonescoop.com/articles/article.php?a=9667

Well, it's obviously invalid because no space trajectory is in the jurisdiction of any nation that grants patents. Space trajectories are, after all, located in space.

The machines and people sending the commands are on in the U.S. Even if they weren't, it doesn't make the patent invalid, it would just be a defense to infringement in this particular case.

From the patent abstract:

   A method is provided for using a lunar flyby
   maneuver to transfer a satellite from a
   quasi-geosynchronous transfer orbit having a
   high inclination to a final geosynchronous orbit
   having a low inclination. The invention may be
   used to take the inclination of a final geosynchronous
   orbit of a satellite to zero, resulting in a
   geostationary orbit, provided that the satellite
   is launched in March or September.
That part about March or September is surprising to me. What is special about those months?

Note that this patent is about a technique involving a lunar flyby for setting up an orbit around Earth. The period of the Moon doesn't fit evenly into the year, and so things that depend on the position of the Moon relative to the Earth tend to occur at intervals that cause them to drift through the calendar year.

What would be happening here that is tied to the year?

Well March is the Spring Equinox, and September is the Fall Equinox and that would be my educated guess as to why those two months are special.

Serious question: Why would day and night on earth being equal length impact orbital mechanics?

Edit: I realized this might sound sarcastic. It isn't meant to be.

From the patent referred to in the article:

"The present invention is directly applicable to a quasi-GTO having any given inclination but is especially advantageous to a satellite launched in either March or September into a highly inclined quasi-GTO because the lunar flyby is capable of removing all of the inclination"

Not very helpful. From another patent ( http://www.patents.com/us-6149103.html ):

"If the satellite 10 had been launched in March or September (around the time of an equinox), the lunar flyby could be timed to occur when the node of the moon is close to the node of the quasi-geosynchronous transfer orbit, so that the earth return orbit has an inclination near zero and the inclination of the orbit of the satellite about the earth could be completely removed by the lunar flyby. Launching March or September is advantageous for satellites or spacecraft because of the sun being normal to the required attitude of the satellite."

It's not the day/night length.

It's the angle of the earth relative to the orbit of the moon. It's a geosynchronous orbit, so it must match the equator, including the angle.

Presumably in other months the angle of the moon's orbit (relative to the equator) is wrong for using this maneuver.

There are 3 bodies here, the Earth, the Moon and the Sun.

During the equinox the equator of the Earth lines up with the Sun-Earth axis. I can see that being significant in all sorts of ways. At other times of year, in a complicated maneuver, the Sun is going to pull the satellite off of that plane of orbit.

It's orbital mechanics impacting the length of day, not the other way around :)

I get the gist of the submission, but "Satellite killed..." is a bit sensational. The AMC-14 is alive, albeit under DOD ownership:


I think the use of the word "killed" here doesn't mean "not alive", but rather "no longer useful", which is a common usage. Considering it was declared a complete loss and sold off, I'd say it was killed in the sense of "this project has been killed".

It is often better to ask forgiveness rather than permission. Why not move the satellite first, litigate about the patent later?

What this really sounds like is a case of somebody taking their lawyers much, much too seriously. Courts have the right to tell you what to do or not do. Lawyers, however (unless they are judges) do not have that right; people unfortunately overlook that point all the time.

Whether or not this is the case here, the sentiment you make about lawyers is so correct in my area (marketing). I often see people looking for lawyers to make yea/nay decisions whereas I believe business is better run when lawyers inform you of the level of risk and possible outcomes of a decision. Then you make the call. Otherwise it seems you will be stuck on the overly safe route.

A deorbit and an insurance payout is a known path with a fixed time period, and with well understood risks and payoffs. Litigating the patent would be precisely the reverse, with the added bonus of the possibility of punitive damages if the judge is in a bad mood.

If you check out the patent, US6116545 and see what citations they have, it seems like there's a whole lot of different patents on various orbital maneuvers.

I can feel the innovation stimulation happening all around us!

> While it is expected that the patent would not stand up to legal challenge, SES intend to de-orbit the spacecraft in order to collect the insurance payout.[7] If this attempt had been successful, the extra use of fuel needed to correct the orbital error would have significantly reduced AMC-14's originally expected service life of 15 years to just four.

Am I reading this wrong, or is it saying they would have killed the satellite anyway, even if there was no patents?

It's called 'An excuse'

They probably wouldn't have killed if it was in the correct orbit all along, but they probably considered "risk of fixing" vs insurance payout

I suspect they wouldn't have gotten the insurance payout without a legally sound excuse.

What next, planes which can only fly south because Boeing have a patent on North?

how about a a patent for parallel parking

You kid. But with driverless cars emerging, I suspect we may well see just that.

You can already buy a Lexus which parallel parks for you. Don't know which, if any, elements are patented though.

That thought occurred to me moments after I posted.

The idea of parallel parking cannot be patented. A specific machine for parallel parking can be (and indeed should be, the inventors of a machine to do something that even many humans struggle with, should be well rewarded).

So if there were people in this satellite steering it, the patent wouldn't apply?

And if the satelite was remote controlled from Earth by a living pilot - would the patent apply then?

I just have to ask, how did you find this?

@leashless mentioned it on Twitter, and it shocked me! He's worth following for quite unusual stuff.

Uh... that's beyond stupid if it's true Maybe the patent is on equipment/method used to calculate the trajectory?

If not, I'll patent my trajectory to work and make a few bucks on the side.

It's not true, ideas are never patentable, they have to pass the machine-transformation test. When the trajectory is applied to a machine it becomes patentable.

It's the application that is patented not the idea. The trajectory alone is not patentable as it fails to meet the machine-transformation test.

I don't follow you. Of what use is it to say that "ideas are never patentable," and then hedge the statement by pointing out that trivial application of the idea to any given concrete object renders it, in effect, patentable?

Why couldn't the grandparent poster file for a patent on a particular sequence of turns and braking/acceleration maneuvers needed to drive from one place to another in the least amount of time? Under your reasoning, all he has to do is add "with an automobile" to the abstract series of instructions, in order to be granted ownership of those instructions with respect to their execution with an automobile.

How in the world can anyone think this is OK?

Ideas are not patentable, but a machine that implements the idea is what's patentable. Someone demonstrated that software implementations are equivalent to a custom-built machine. And poof mathematical algorithms (like RSA for example) and business methods (still really just ideas) became patentable.

So it's not that you can apply an idea to a machine, it's that you can implement the idea as a machine using a general purpose computer and some software. Now, you can certainly fight against this ... but can you afford to do so?

I don't think it's right. I think the systems needs overhaulin'

I'm not trying to advocate I'm trying to convey my understanding of patent law.

Likely the reason that boeing was granted a patent is because going to the moon to place an object in geosynchronous orbit is non-obvious, according to the patent office.

Reasons I could see the series of turns being rejected for use in an automobile is probably because of obviousness and prior art. If you invented something that allowed you to drive to china faster via a trasnit of the moon then you probably could get a patent for it.

I didn't say any of the things you said, I said that an idea alone can't be patented because of machine-transformation test, if you'd like to argue about whether it makes sense take it up with the SCOTUS. Also, patents don't grant ownership they grant monopoly on use of the patented claims for a period of 17 years.

People think this is OK because the inventor discloses his invention to the public for anyone to use after the monopoly has ended. Note that no one gets to use SpaceX's inventions in rocketry because they don't file patents, conversely if you come up with the invention yourself you're free to use it because they don't have a monopoly on the invention.

So GPS makers can not only have patents on how a route is created, but on the actual routes?

If the route is non-obvious and doesn't have prior art probably.

If you invented a warp drive that could get you from New York to London in 3 minutes you could probably file a patent for folding space in a manner that gets you from New York to London in three minutes with out smushing the earth into bits.

But if you read the patent it's just about a method, not some application - how could that possibly pass the test you mentioned?

It passed the "is it worth arguing it in court" patentability test. Would there be an ROI on the legal fees, time, etc to fight the patent? No? Then the patent holds up.

Could the Yankees patent a particular trajectory to the plate and keep all the other teams from pitching that way?

Every now and then, I read a piece of news that makes me think if extraterrestrials are watching us, they must be shaking their heads in some combination of amusement, disgust, and despair.

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