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Space Communications Patents

Satellite Abandoned Due To Orbital Patent 366

Posted by Soulskill
from the patently-ridiculous dept.
EreIamJH brings news about a commercial geostationary satellite that was launched last month. Due to a launch failure, the satellite did not reach the orbit required to perform its function. The satellite's owner, SES Americom, looked for a way to salvage the satellite, but ran into an unexpected hurdle; a Boeing patent on the lunar flyby process that would be used to correct the satellite's orbit. If another company doesn't purchase the satellite, it is likely to become another piece of space junk. The European Space Agency has posted a gallery of the maps they have put together for man-made debris in orbit around the earth.
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Satellite Abandoned Due To Orbital Patent

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  • by seifried (12921) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:20AM (#23034028) Homepage
    What a ridiculous waste of time, money and energy. This is sickening.
  • by ulash (1266140) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:22AM (#23034032)
    ...when common sense does not prevail. The company and Boeing need to come to an agreement of sorts in order to avert the turning of the satellite into space debris. We already have enough stuff out there. The fact that there is no explicit "cost" to the company, of leaving something up there is the main reason for the seeming unwillingness for taking action.
  • Abandon patents (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:28AM (#23034054)
    Can't we just abandon the whole patent system?
  • Teh rael story (Score:1, Insightful)

    by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:32AM (#23034068)
    I know we all want to jump on the patent holder here, but here are the two salient parts of the article.

    Primarily this is because SES is currently suing Boeing for an unrelated New Skies matter in the order of $50 million dollars - and Boeing told SES that the patent was only available if SES Americom dropped the lawsuit.

    So SES is trying to get 50 million dollars from Boeing, and Boeing is using their patent as leverage to drop the lawsuit.

    I wonder what the lawsuit is about.

    and two:

    SES has decided not to pursue any legal options against Boeing and wants to collect their insurance policy payout. However, their insurance company was not being fully briefed on the options and at this time is planning to pay the policy out.

    SES is looking forward to a big payout in the case the satellite returns from orbit. They stand to lose nothing either way. However, the insurance company may step in and declare the policy void if it turns out SES can save the satellite. Interesting conundrum.

    SES sounds like a delightful company...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:55AM (#23034160)
    The advantage of this would be that, somewhere in the universe, there's likely to be prior art for just about any invention that's even remotely useful, so bye, bye, patents.
  • by pla (258480) on Friday April 11, 2008 @05:57AM (#23034170) Journal
    a Boeing patent on the lunar flyby process that would be used to correct the satellite's orbit.

    So this amounts to a patent on moving in a given direction? April first passed by almost two weeks ago. C'mon, guys, bad joke?

    Unbelievable. We don't need patent reform, we need an angry mob to storm the USPTO and burn the place to dust, then sift through the dust and re-burn anything left, then haul the entire mess to a live volcano. You just can't have a monopoly on basic physics, Boeing, whether or not the rules allow it. Seriously, grow the fuck up and go back to competing with Airbus on technical merits rather than endless pissing contests with the WTO/WIPO.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:19AM (#23034252)

    So really this isn't a case of "patents are evil" it is a case of "you reap what you sow".

    ...why can't it be both?
  • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:35AM (#23034314)

    Even if the patent is "valid", what jurisdiction would it have in space?
    None, I'm sure. So all SES Americom would have to do is relocate themselves into geosynchronous orbit, and Bob's your uncle!

    Seriously though, from TFA:

    Industry sources have told SpaceDaily that the patent is regarded as legal "trite", as basic physics has been rebranded as a "process", and that the patent wouldn't stand up to any significant level of court scrutiny and was only registered at the time as "the patent office was incompetent when it came to space matters".

    So, it's a moot point. We can't really be sure why SES Americom isn't pursuing this. For all we know, they're confident they'd win---but it might screw their chances for a reasonable settlement on their other suit against Boeing.

    Or, maybe, the satellite would have crashed into the sea by the time they got a resolution.
  • by mcvos (645701) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:43AM (#23034354)

    license the patent from boeing?
    Because invoking their insurance is cheaper than dropping the lawsuit. How's that for fucked up system?
  • by TorKlingberg (599697) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:43AM (#23034356)
    How do you know that SES Americom is doing anything wrong by suing Boeing? If that other suit is valid, then Boeing is abusing the patent system to prevent others from suing them.
  • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by kirthn (64001) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:57AM (#23034428)
    euhmm..to start, there is a difference of belonging to the US governement (as in warshps?) and commercial fleet ...furthermore....you put the focus on the satellite here, instead of the "controllable" exterior forces....like gravity ;)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:57AM (#23034430)
    Why is splashing the satellite a "dirty trick"? It is good business sense. The satellite is insured for the full value that SES would have gained had it stayed in orbit for it's intended 15 years. The fact is, with the lunar fly by, the satellite would have burned so much fuel that it could have only been kept in orbit for four years, and the insurance company would have had to pay off for the other 11 years. Makes much more sense to me to just splash it, collect the insurance, and get back to work.

    The Dirty Trick here is using a patent that wouldn't stand a day in court to force a company to stop trying to get judicial resolution for something.
  • by pieterh (196118) on Friday April 11, 2008 @06:59AM (#23034442) Homepage
    No, this is a myth. New ideas get shared because they are very hard to keep secret. Patents do not promote disclosure of ideas that can be kept secret, they protect ideas that will inevitably be shared or reinvented in any case.

    And since patented ideas cannot be reused or expanded on, patents reduce the sharing and reuse of knowledge, they do not promote it. Overall, patents are very harmful for technological progress. This is why, e.g. oil companies collect patents on solar power, and telecoms firms collect patents on VoIP.

    The real purpose of patents is to make money for patent holders, patent experts, and patent lawyers. Anyone who says differently is lying or ignorant. Period.

  • by JasterBobaMereel (1102861) on Friday April 11, 2008 @07:01AM (#23034448)
    The patent system is broken... we need to fix it

    1) Only allow patents on processes not things
    2) Only allow patents on processes people can prove they invented (not as now that no-one has yet proved they didn't)
    3) Force people to licence patents (i.e. anyone can use it for a fee) and restrict the fee charged so they cannot bury it or skew the market

  • Wow (Score:2, Insightful)

    by setrops (101212) on Friday April 11, 2008 @07:22AM (#23034530)
    Unbelievable! Wouldn't Douglas Adams's process on falling and missing the ground be considered as prior art?
  • by camperdave (969942) on Friday April 11, 2008 @07:29AM (#23034552) Journal
    What are 1000 patent lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

    ... a waste of perfectly good ocean floor.
  • Re:Jurisdiction? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Richard Kirk (535523) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:11AM (#23034738)

    This is not really about patents, but two companies having a scrap and using whatever tools come to hand. However, it does give some insights into the wonderful and wacky world of US patent law.

    The internaltional patent treaties require symmetrical rights across internaltional boundaries for the signatories, even though the patent laws of the signatories may not be the same. If a patent can cover something in country A, and cannot in country B, then within country B there is no infringement of that which cannot be patented.

    In Europe, for example, we cannot patent business practices, and software patents are being challenged. We canot patent either of these, which also means we cannot apply for a US patent even though the US patent would be valid.

    Consequently, an infringement of a US patent has to be found on US soil. Once a case has been found, then the lawysers can ask for (and get) damages that include losses of sales abroad. But without an infringement on US soil, the game doesn't start.

    If the Boeing patent was properly worded, then infringement would cover building a craft that could do the patented process, or issuing instructions for the patented process. As the craft was not designed to do this, then SES Americom might get around this by having someone in Europe issue the signals.

    Unfortunately, in such cases, neither side in a patent case is likely to get their costs back, so it is often easier to roll over then fight, particularly when one company is smaller than another.

  • by Jerry (6400) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:13AM (#23034744)
    "the patent office was incompetent when it came to space matters".


    To "space matters." ??


    Some corporate bozo just found out the incompetence of the USTPO isn't just in software patents, it's stupidity crosses ALL boundaries and affects every activity, personal or otherwise.


    Giant corporations and multinationals have purchased the USTPO lock, stock and barrel. It's snuggled up in their pockets right next to the USDept Of Justice, our Congress, and those Judges who are given expensive trips to re-educate them in ways they can help corporations circumvent the Sherman-Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and other laws.

  • Dear Sir, (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wild_berry (448019) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:29AM (#23034830) Journal

    The real purpose of patents is to make money for patent holders, patent experts, and patent lawyers. Anyone who says differently is lying or ignorant. Period.

    I fail to see where an expired patent makes money for its inventor, licensees or any patent agents. When the invention is no longer monopolised by the patent proprietor, what is its purpose? Its purpose is that anyone can use the invention. Can you please show me how I'm ignorant or where I'm lying?
  • by houghi (78078) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:35AM (#23034882)
    So the patent is used as a legal dfence, not as something to protect the invention itself.

    If you or I would do something like that, it would be called blackmail: I give your kid the medicine it needs, when you stop asking for that loan I have with you.
  • by Perl-Pusher (555592) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:49AM (#23035012)
    SES has decided not to pursue any legal options against Boeing and wants to collect their insurance policy payout.

    Why operate a satellite for years at diminishing returns when you can get an immediate big payoff? And as a side benefit the blame goes to a competitor whom your are engaged in a lawsuit with. Immoral? Not to them. Just businesses screwing each other. The Insurance company will pass the loss down the chain. Somewhere down the chain I figure I'm going to end up paying in a tax . Especially since the Fed and Congress are into the business of bailing out companies.
  • by JrOldPhart (1063610) on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:53AM (#23035050) Journal
    I'll bet he has the people stand/sit out in the sun for long periods waiting for the cure.
  • by saider (177166) on Friday April 11, 2008 @09:00AM (#23035116)
    And since patented ideas cannot be reused or expanded on, patents reduce the sharing and reuse of knowledge, they do not promote it.

    You can patent an idea that improves on another patented idea. Also patents increase the sharing of knowledge because the process is stored in a public database for all to see. As opposed to a trade secret, which truly stifles innovation.

    Patents do slow down the reuse of ideas, but only for a limited time.

    Patents are a problem these days because examiners are awarding inappropriate patents, not because the system itself is flawed.

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Friday April 11, 2008 @09:02AM (#23035136)
    No offense, but this cure should be general knowledge. Medical patents are below software patents on the scale of grotesque abuses of the patent system. First of all, if this cure was patented, it is unlikely that it would ever find its way to third world countries, especially unstable nations in Africa. This has been the case with AIDS medication in the past -- the governments of those countries are told that they risk economic sanctions if they try to infringe on the patents, and medical companies refuse to sell the medicines in countries where they are unlikely to turn a profit.

    There are a very, very limited set of cases where patents are a good thing, and medicine is about as far as you can get from those cases. Telling people that they cannot make the medicine they need because you have a patent on it and it wouldn't be profitable to sell it in a poor region is a disgrace.

  • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Friday April 11, 2008 @09:05AM (#23035158)
    Considering that many of the medicines that are routinely used these days were discovered before drug patents, I would say that you are just completely misinformed. Drug patents have one interesting side effect though: some people are unable to get the medicine they need, because the drug companies refuse to sell it in a region where they are not likely to turn a profit, and the governments of those regions are told they face economic sanctions if they tolerate patent infringement. Drug patents are a disgrace that worsen an already bad medical situation in Africa.
  • by SharpFang (651121) on Friday April 11, 2008 @09:20AM (#23035300) Homepage Journal

    This is why, e.g. oil companies collect patents on solar power [snip]
    Not so that they alone can make money off of solar power once the oil runs out?
    By then the patents will be expired.

    But currently you can't improve the technology basing on patents they hold, so you can't create competition worth speaking of.

    Patents have a relatively short lifespan. But it's not 'I can't produce X because it's patented' that hurts worst. It's 'I can't design, produce and manufacture a far superior Y of which X is a part'.

  • by maypull (845051) on Friday April 11, 2008 @09:29AM (#23035398)

    Nobody is saying that oil itself is evil (yet), but rather, that the tactics employed by oil companies are designed to stall the use of new energy source for as long as possible.
    Evil is a human emotion. Do you really think corporations have human feelings? Bottom lines are what matters.

    There's another, less Machiavellian reason: it's good business sense from a strategic point of view. The supermajors are beginning to try and turn themselves around to become "energy companies" instead of "oil companies". See BP's partly-successful greenwashing attempts such as changing their tagline to "Beyond Petroleum".

    The writing is on the wall, and they see it. Patents such as these, as well as stalling alternative energy adoption (I don't deny that it's attractive to them, but I don't really believe that they sat around in board meetings and decided upon it as a strategy), also attempt to ensure cashflow once the wells dry up.

    For disclosure's sake, I do work in the oil industry (in the UK, which is in its twilight years for production), but I'm neither an apologist nor against it on principle; it just pays the bills -- for now.

  • by Redlum_Jak2 (1171573) on Friday April 11, 2008 @09:45AM (#23035570)

    Perfectly good satellite that can be saved or sold, but being dumped for insurance? Makes no sense.


    Not only does it make no sense, it sounds like insurance fraud.

    if I have a fire, but I ask the fire department to stop putting out the fire, then I shouldn't get the insurance money.

    SES had a launch failure, but they have a perfectly good option for recovering the use of the satellite themselves or selling it and letting someone else move it to a stable orbit. Therefore it's insurance fraud and they shouldn't collect the full value of the satellite.
  • by RKThoadan (89437) on Friday April 11, 2008 @10:16AM (#23035940)
    Well, someone else wanted to do it and then discovered that it's patented, so it's obviously not terribly unusual.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @11:08AM (#23036660)
    There are a very, very limited set of cases where patents are a good thing, and medicine is about as far as you can get from those cases.

    This is an amazingly idealistic view. And completely ignorant of the economic forces that lead to new cures. Typical of the communist mindset, slaughtering the breeding stock to feed the people this year, without understanding its effect on future production.

    Developing an onnovative new drug costs a LOT of money. copying a drug someone else has made is far cheaper, slightly costlier is developing a work-alike drug. There is no incentive to spend money developing them, expecially if as you suggest you required full disclosure, except for intellectual curiousity and philanthropy (private or governmental). And I can't see that coming close to the R&D dollars currently being poured into new development by the drug companies.

    This has been the case with AIDS medication in the past -- the governments of those countries are told that they risk economic sanctions if they try to infringe on the patents, and medical companies refuse to sell the medicines in countries where they are unlikely to turn a profit.

    By the time a medication has been proven effective, the patent has typcially 12 years of life. You can force the developer to give that one cure away 12 years earlier, and sacrifice all the future medications they might develop, or you can allow the system that developed it to continue to function. You can't have it both ways

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 11, 2008 @11:18AM (#23036782)
    or he could, you know, tell everyone what it is.
  • by pieterh (196118) on Friday April 11, 2008 @12:51PM (#23037932) Homepage

    Developing an onnovative new drug costs a LOT of money.
    Uhm, developing any product at all costs a lot of money. That does not mean patents promote innovation. Good lord, developing software is extraordinarily costly. Still, I invest in it because people will then give me even more money. Asprin, not patented, makes a lot of money.

    Also, that village doctor story... well, he says it works, but how can anyone test it? It's a very flimsy proof that we need a patent system. There are millions of village doctors who have "secret" recipes, and the usual thing is, it's bogus. Real doctors tend to actually care about saving lives, and tend to share their knowledge. That's also how they learn in the first place.

    Someone's grandfather "invented" a miracle cure? Nah, it's a poor story, highly unlikely, and even if true, so rare that it does not justify the massive abuses that the patenting of medical areas (one example) allows.

    I'd much rather a few secret cures (if this is true, which I severely doubt) are lost than entire areas of medicine - malaria, breast cancer, etc. etc. - are patented, causing the end of research in those areas and the illness and death of tens, hundreds of millions.

    Patents in medicine kill many, many people, don't misunderstand that. Oh, yes, but we can give some firm a monopoly on Viagra. Big deal.

    As for the 12 years... well, drug companies are expert in greenfielding their patents, so they can last much longer than 20 years. Keep patenting small incremental innovations...

    Not convinced, sorry.
  • by jc42 (318812) on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:29PM (#23038362) Homepage Journal
    Better than losing that information forever, right?
    Think about it - he or his son or his grandchild dies before that information is transferred. This would mean that this information is lost forever.


    Actually, medical researchers have lamented such losses on many occasions. There is ongoing funding of investigation of "folk" medicines, and such studies regularly turn up useful new drugs. But in some cases, the medicines are lost before the investigators can learn about them.

    One of the main complaints of these researchers is that previous field researchers, usually botanists and occasionally zoologists, will do species surveys of an area, but fail to record the local people's uses of their local species. Later on, a medical researcher decides to investigate a species for possible medical use (perhaps because it's related to other species that are known to produce useful medicines). It turns out that the local people remember some use that a previous local doctor had made of the species, but that fellow has died, and the current people don't know anything about the details. If the previous botanist had recorded the local medical usage in his notes, the medical investigators might have appeared on the scene earlier, before the local doctor died, and learned of the medicine.

    There's a lot of inefficiency in how we handle such things. In this case, the compartmentalization of specialties results in botanists not being concerned with how local people use a species. The only concern is in documenting the species in enough detail to make it identifiable to other botanists, and recording basic info about its habitat. Human use of a plant is Someone Else's Problem.

    The above local doctor's story isn't at all unusual, and shows a sort of inefficiency that's quite common: Medicine has been historically organized into local "guilds" that tend to be secretive about their knowledge. This was true in the West until the past couple centuries, and is still part of how Western commercial medicine operates. The fellow's attitude may be quite rational from his viewpoint, since telling others about his cure is likely to result in strangers coming in and ending part of his business. We have a patent system that protects corporations from such losses, but it doesn't work for individuals like this doctor.

    We all suffer as a result of such social inefficiencies. But we don't seem to know how to fix the problems. And many people continue to support things like the patent system and corporate secrecy, which mostly just continue the problems (while occasionally making a very few people rich).

  • by CowTipperGore (1081903) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:22PM (#23039846)

    By allowing patents, we get people like him to divulge his or her information in exchange for protection of their patent, allowing them to make money off from it in a non-secretive fashion, helping society as a whole.
    Perhaps in theory. In practice, he divulges his information in exchange for being told that Merck already patented something that is written ambiguously enough to preclude him from selling his medicine. Or, he sells his rights to someone for $5,000, who then makes billions marketing it to the world. Meanwhile, the medicine now costs $300 and the villagers can no longer afford it.

    What incentive does a patent offer some village shaman? Do you think he's going to setup a pharmaceutical lab in his home and export to the US and EU?

  • by Omestes (471991) <[omestes] [at] [gmail.com]> on Friday April 11, 2008 @08:47PM (#23043000) Homepage Journal
    Evil is a human emotion. Do you really think corporations have human feelings? Bottom lines are what matters.

    Evil is not an emotion. Evil is a social judgment on ones actions, in accords with a value system. Evil, also, can be determined either by motive or effect (depending on what ethical system we are looking at). Thus you setting out to murder a family, but actually curing cancer, can still be evil. Or, you accidentally killing a family while on your way to cure cancer, can be evil.

    Though we can, arguably, remove the "social" aspect, and find some basis of what we term good and evil in more biological, or evolutionary, terms.

    Reading this, pretty much anything capable of action can be said to be capable of evil. Corporations are capable of action, and thus can do evil. If a corporation can make lots of money by slaughtering babies, I would say this is an evil act by a corporation.

    The problem comes from where do we assign blame. I personally think it should be distributed to every member of the organization who had knowledge of the "evil" act.

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