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NASA Space Patents

NASA Patents To Be Auctioned 224

Presto Vivace writes to tell us that as a continuing push to commercialize NASA-funded technology a group of 25 NASA patents will be auctioned off this coming October. "The sale, which will include rights to signal processing, GPS for spacecraft and sensor technologies, is the first auction under a partnership announced earlier this month between Goddard's Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP) and Ocean Tomo Federal Services LLC. Ocean Tomo provides a marketplace for intellectual property, which NASA wants to leverage in commercializing its technology."
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NASA Patents To Be Auctioned

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  • Great! (Score:5, Funny)

    by BitterOldGUy ( 1330491 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:04PM (#25016771)

    The HHT technology is a highly efficient, adaptive and user-friendly set of algorithms for analyzing time-varying processes, designed specifically for nonlinear and nonstationary signals.

    Finally a version that can be used in the home! I'll see if my grandma needs this.

  • Auctioned off? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:05PM (#25016781)

    Those patents belong to the American people!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Korin43 ( 881732 )
      Why the hell does a public organization have patents?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mog007 ( 677810 )

      Yeah, since when can government agencies patent anything? Anything they create is instantly entered into the public domain. Who would buy a patent that anybody's allowed to infringe upon without repercussions?

  • by Eric Smith ( 4379 ) * on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:05PM (#25016789) Homepage Journal
    As a US taxpayer, I already funded the research that led to these patents. Now they'll sell them off, which superficially sounds like a good thing. But the reality is that it means that I get to pay for them again. The companies buying the patents aren't ultimately the ones paying, it's those of us that buy products from those companies.

    The results of taxpayer-funded research need to be made freely available, not sold to the highest bidder.

    • by morikahnx ( 1323841 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:11PM (#25016863)
      Maybe NASA is planning on paying us back?
    • by BitterOldGUy ( 1330491 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:12PM (#25016885)
      Ah. So the American Corp who would get these patents (by lottery or by political connections), saving money on R&D, can now pass the savings on to the CEO in terms of even higher salary and perks. He earned it after all by saving the company millions of dollars in R&D costs.

      In the meantime, NASA doesn't get to recover the costs that they spent (our tax dollars) and therefore has to beg Congress for more money. Congress, on the other hand, has things they would rather spend money on: wars, pork barrel spending, things that buy votes from joe sixpack who doesn't give a rat's ass about space - space science is one of those "elitist" pursuits, bridges to no-where, tax breaks to big oil, tax breaks to big corps who've lobbied for them, their own increasing salaries and perks, etc....

      Sorry, I didn't mean to sound bitter.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by jd ( 1658 )
        No, you don't sound bitter. Bitter, preferably draught and in the form of three pints (with plenty of peanuts) might be a good thing right now. I would argue that you sound perceptive.
      • Tax cuts for big oil []? They should really pay more than 40% of their profits in taxes, and also jack up the price of gas to $12/gallon so they have even more profits to suck from so we can raise welfare salary for those 4th generation welfare kids.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by onionlee ( 836083 )
        I think your basic assumption is incorrect. Rather than saving on R&D, the company will be forced to make a better cheaper product. If the research was made freely available, no single company has a monopoly on the technology. This of course will increase competition, in the end bringing back our well spent tax money. Imagine if mp3 players still were held under a single patent (see: [] ) No iPod D: and no Zune (>_> then again, that could be a good
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by SharpFang ( 651121 )

        Nope. ALL American companies get these patents, freely. None can use them to monopolize a sector of the market and gain unhealthy advantage - they all compete and they all produce better, smarter equipment while competition keeps the prices down.

        Imagine Velcro still being in hands of one manufacturer selling it for $50/inch^2.

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      And if they gave them away you think that the products would be cheaper?
      What do you think would be better?

      • Of course. If company A has to buy a patent to produce product X, don't you expect they'll factor the cost of that patent into the selling price of the product? Or do you think they're running some kind of charity?
    • by CodeBuster ( 516420 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:20PM (#25016983)

      But the reality is that it means that I get to pay for them again.

      Suppose instead that you were the sole owner of the patents, but for some reason (you choose) you didn't want to spend money to develop and market products based upon the patents, even though you might personally be interested in buying whatever products are ultimately produced using the patents. Would you not be happy with a cash settlement from the sale of your patents? Presumably you could still purchase whatever products came out of the patents and enjoy them while paying a small share of what the patent buyer paid you (in the form of a higher product price) in exchange for a product that you want. How is this not a good deal?

      Now, in theory it would be better if all of us taxpayers saw some "return" on our investment in the form of lower taxes going forward based upon the proceeds of a successful sale of patents generated from publicly funded research. However, in practice any proceeds will probably go to NASA and not be returned to the US Treasury so in that sense the US taxpayer is getting a bit of the shaft. On the other hand, maybe some useful products, which wouldn't otherwise be available to the public, will come of this so it may not all be bad.

      If the patents were made freely available then other countries and foreign companies could free-ride and enjoy the fruits of our research efforts without reimbursing us for any of the costs that we have already paid for the research. How would that make you feel? Perhaps you prefer that nobody earns any profit, even though your tax dollars are already a sunk cost either way, just to spite the winning bidders? Either way you still paid for the research and got no direct return.

      • Lower taxes resulting from sale of the patents? What are you smoking, and where can I get some?

        If I was concerned about foreign companies being able to take advantage of the research I've paid for, I'd want NASA to sell the foreign patent rights, not the US patents. But the reality is that it's just as much in my interest for foreign companies to be able to use the research results as domestic companies, because in either case if they have to buy patents, they'll mark up the prices they charge me for th

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

        How reasonable. What are you doing on Slashdot?
        The other choice would be to grant none exclusive rights to companies. Maybe on a per product basis? That would then open up problems with auditing and do we want NASA doing that?

        My choice would be to offer the patents free to any US company that builds their product in the US. But that would be a mess to monitor.
        Frankly this seems like a reasonable way to deal with these patents.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Of course. Except the analogy is wrong. In this case, I (NASA) was paid by someone. That someone is the US taxpayer. As it seems that the patents were work for hire (as evidenced by the fact that they belong to NASA, and not the inventor), they belong to whoever paid the money. I.e., me (the US taxpayer).

        I could accept the alternative of lower taxes because NASA wouldn't require so much funding, but alas, I'm pretty sure DC will find some other uses for my taxes.

      • then _NASN_ should be licensing these patents to businesses directly instead of selling them to a third party for the (presumably lower) short term return. Said license fees then used to forward NASA's goals at a reduced ongoing tax burden.

        That way the money we invested in NASA is paid back into NASA in an approach towards a self sustaining NASA.

        Like how it goes in life insurance. You pay in until the fund is full, and then the fund starts paying you back.

        Selling for the short term and (at least as far as

        • Selling for the short term and (at least as far as the buyer is concerned) sucker-price is for, well, suckers.

          So don't sell for the short term, sell for the present value [] of the expected license payments at a good rate premium (say 5-7% right now). If you elect instead to wait and collect payments then you have to pay for a private firm or a bureaucracy to collect the payments and monitor accounts (NASA was not set up as a bill collecting agency after all). It is not a sucker move to sell a stream of payments upfront if the price is right.

    • Well, don't waste your steam here. Vent your indignation at your senators, congress-critters, etc. Raise a stink in the newspapers. Make it an election issue. Where does Barak sit on the issue? What about McCain?
    • by reebmmm ( 939463 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:33PM (#25017147)

      Let me just add: nothing is being sold. Each of the lots is "an exclusive license" and not an actual assignment. Presumably, the exclusive license will have development and commercialization requirements--just like any other federally funded patent license agreement. Typically, the point is to bring the technology to market. Obviously, NASA doesn't think it's doing a good job of that right now.

      Also, you have a very messed up idea of how government works. Things that happen with your tax monies aren't freely available to you. If a pig farmer gets a subsidy, you can't go take a pig.

      • by Eric Smith ( 4379 ) * on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:48PM (#25017331) Homepage Journal
        Whether it's an exclusive license or a sale, the result is the same. I get to pay for the research again and again.

        Your example with the pig is exactly why the government shouldn't be giving out subsidies. I am unable to identify which of the Powers of Congress enumerated in Article I Section 8 of the US Constitution includes the power to grant subsidies to private entities.

      • If a pig farmer gets a subsidy, you can't go take a pig.

        Actually, I can. The supermarket will sell me a pork loin for less than I would have without the subsidy. That works for me.

        However, when a patent is sold, a monopoly position is sold. And monopoly rents work completely different from regular supply and demand curves.

      • If a pig farmer gets a subsidy, you can't go take a pig.

        Of course not. Because there isn't one. Because they paid them to NOT raise pigs...

        Sheesh, come on people, don't you know how pig farmer subsidies work?!

  • So NASA gets a couple of pennies while anyone who wants to use the technology gets their pocketbooks pillaged?

    Am I understanding that right?

  • Hell No! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Dynedain ( 141758 ) <slashdot2@anthon ... m ['in.' in gap]> on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:07PM (#25016817) Homepage

    If my tax dollars paid for the research and development that has lead to a patent, then that patent should remain in the hands of the government, not sold to the highest bidder.

    If these patents are so valuable that someone is willing to buy them (and theoretically license them), then NASA should be licensing the patents themselves. Sounds like a better long-term supplemental funding solution to me. Several other agencies have fee and license structures (FCC, FDA) that helps supplement their annual Congressional appropriations. Why not NASA as well?

    • Re:Hell No! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Adambomb ( 118938 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:17PM (#25016949) Journal

      Why not NASA as well?

      Easy answer with a question: Why would they set up a licensing setup (with all the overhead and fun as their investment) when the government can instead get the big boost from the initial sale and then tax both the sale itself, the revenue of the company, and the sales of the consumer? This would then shunt any overhead of profiting off the patent to the winning bidder as well.

      Granted, the answer only makes sense when it goes with the assumption that it can be spun such that your objection doesn't become the 51%+ demographic as you're exactly right that this is complete bull.

      • Easy answer with a question: Why would they set up a licensing setup (with all the overhead and fun as their investment) when the government can instead get the big boost from the initial sale and then tax both the sale itself, the revenue of the company, and the sales of the consumer? This would then shunt any overhead of profiting off the patent to the winning bidder as well.

        Then contract out the license management (just like the armed forces contract out the supply chain) with a percentage cut for the pr

        • You're assuming they do not want the patent to be mishandled.

          The higher the revenue from the purchasing company, the better return in overall taxation on both the company's revenues and the purchases from the customers. Seems ass backwards but I certainly can't think of a LOGICAL reason for them to be doing this.

    • This is like selling your state's tollway [] because you can't balance the budget.

      Yes, you get to feel like you solved the budget crisis this year. Too bad you can only do it once.

      • They did the same thing here in Ontario - Highway 407 was built with public money. Then the conservative government came into power leased it for 99 years to a foreign company (407 ETR). I'm sure after 99 years is up, if we're even using roads then, the government will have to pick up the cost of it, as well.

        Something as public as a road (or water, hydro, etc) shouldn't be privatized - it just leads to gouging as there can't be competition in these spaces.

        Short term gain for long term pain.

    • Suppose that NASA did license them and got paid a yearly fee for the remaining duration of the patent. You could even throw in revenue from multiple interested licensees (since the patents are valuable and more than one firm would probably like to license them...or at least lets suppose for the sake of argument that this is true). Shouldn't we be willing to accept instead a lump-sum payment at auction equivalent to the present value [] of those future licensing payments? It doesn't really matter whether we sel
  • by hirschma ( 187820 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:09PM (#25016839)

    TFA didn't really get into detail, but does this mean:

    1. Taxpayers fund research,
    2. Government patents results,
    3. Government sells patents to private concern,
    4. Taxpayer gets to pay for research again via the consumer channel,
    5. Private concern profits?

    Seems like another form of corporate welfare to me. Is this the case?

    • "Seems like another form of corporate welfare to me. Is this the case?"

      In the US, welfare is a dirty word unless linked to "personal" or "corporate", then it's the best thing since sliced bread.

    • by Fastolfe ( 1470 )

      The patents are being auctioned. This means these corporations are paying your government (thus you, indirectly) cash money. It's not corporate welfare, but it is effectively a one-time tax (you paid taxes to fund the research that went into these patents, and the money resulting from their sale is going to the government, not back to you).

      • You are assuming that the corporation will be paying at least the R&D costs, or more.

        As this is an auction, they may be getting very valuable patents, which cost dearly to research, for very cheaply.

        And, even if they get the patents for the cost of the R&D, they may still make horrendous profits off the backs of the consumer.

        I fail to see why the government should be spending tax dollars to solely benefit private companies.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Fastolfe ( 1470 )

          The government spent tax dollars for NASA. NASA did research that resulted in patents. The value of those patents is all that matters at this point. The rest is a sunk cost []. An auction swaps two things of equal value: here, a patent license, and cash. NASA will be able to do more with the cash than they will with a patent. The company owner will be able to do more with a patent license than they can with the cash. For taxpayers, it's a zero sum, except now we have products coming to market that we wo

          • by PPH ( 736903 )

            Option 2: NASA places their patents into the public domain.

            The company owner will be able to do more with a patent license than they can with the cash.

            Under option 2, the company can still produce products. And keep the cash they would have paid for the patent. So what the company is paying for with Option 1 is the right to run a monopoly. Meanwhile, the competition that would have kept prices down, and benefited the consumers (taxpayers) does not materialize.

            Lets hear it for Option 1. Mercantilism [] lives!

            • by Fastolfe ( 1470 )

              A great point, but bear in mind that by removing patent protection, it allows any business in any other country to in turn profit from this American investment. Is that a better use of NASA research?

          • by Detritus ( 11846 )
            NASA doesn't get a penny from the auction. All proceeds go straight to the U.S. treasury, like all money collected by the federal government. Only Congress has the power to make appropriations and spend money.
    • 'Government' makes it sound like you're talking about something somehow different or greater then yourself.

      I mean, the people did the research, which was funded by...the people and now a small group of people want to sell it to private interests. Sometimes people need to remind people who and what their government is for. Sometimes we even need to remind ourselves.
    • by wkk2 ( 808881 )

      There is an extra step: 3a. Sell so the government can spend more money now. Just like selling toll roads.

  • by compumike ( 454538 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:10PM (#25016859) Homepage

    For copyrightable material, "Works created by an agency of the United States government are public domain at the moment of creation." []

    But here, for patentable material, it's clear that that is not the case. The theory goes that since the taxpayer paid for it, the taxpayer should get the rights to it. It's essentially always the case that the inventors will "assign" the work to the organization... but should NASA really be able to hold a competitive IP position when we're all forced to pay for its work?

    Think of the private spaceflight organizations, for example, who might want to enter similar fields. They're already being forced to pay for NASA's research (via taxes), but they're being excluded from the result, while the opposite (NASA forced to pay for private company XYZ's research without a return of IP) is not happening.

    Hey code monkey... learn electronics! Powerful microcontroller kits for the digital generation. []

  • by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:14PM (#25016901) Homepage Journal

    It's bad enough that NASA patents its inventions at all. But perhaps it's occasionally necessary, to prevent dangerous tech from getting into private hands. And maybe if the patents were awarded to American holders strategically to "promote progress in science and the useful arts", which is the only basis patents have, from the Constitution, they might be worth their infringements on free communication and further innovation.

    But those inventions were paid for by the entire American public, as directed under the government elected by the public to serve the entire public. Simply turning them over to private corps for a little money doesn't justify the public investment.

    It's just another subsidy forced on the entire public on some special preference for some private corporation. I thought Republicans hated that kind of thing.

    • by Fastolfe ( 1470 )

      It seems to me that by patenting an invention, it allows the US government to ensure that only US companies (taxpayers) can exploit that patent. Making something the equivalent of public domain would seem to allow companies in other countries to profit from this research. It also seems plausible to me that the WTO might have a few things to say about the US government preferentially licensing patents to US companies.

      • I like the idea of the US government requiring all patents it registers to be licensed or sold to only US companies, or else revert back to the US government.

        But I see no sign that such a policy is in effect.

        As for the WTO, if someone wants to sue the US government for preferring to subsidize US people, I'd like to see such an argument make a lot of noise, enough to get the US out of the WTO - or any other international trade regime that requires a "suicide pact".

    • It's just another subsidy forced on the entire public on some special preference for some private corporation.

      It is not a subsidy because it is being sold at auction which means that if the patent is valuable then it will very quickly be bid up to its fair market value (or perhaps even higher) by competing interested parties. Some of them might want to use the patent to produce products while others might want to acquire the patent and use it to sue other firms that are infringing the patent. Either way, the auction is the best format to sell these patents because they are not generally sold as everyday items and n

      • When its "fair market value" is below the cost to produce it, a cost paid by the taxpayers, that's a subsidy.

        I didn't argue with the auction as the format to sell it. But I will, since you brought it up: the better way to award the patent, if that is at all appropriate, is strategically to a company that will provide the most public benefit (or patch a hole in a public liability).

        The problem is not the preference: that's a proper role for the government to play, when such preference is in the public interes

        • The better way to award the patent, if that is at all appropriate, is strategically to a company that will provide the most public benefit (or patch a hole in a public liability).

          That is not necessarily true. Extra money in the US Treasury is clearly a benefit that everyone can agree on proportional to the amount of extra money deposited. Determining whether or if gifting the patents to domestic strategic companies would benefit us all more is much more difficult to than cash up front. If it were put to a public vote then I would vote for auction with money going into the US Treasury or better yet redistributed to all Americans as a one time cash rebate (i.e. total amount of sales /

      • You don't even understand his complaint. People are upset because they feel that if tax dollars paid for the research, then the patent ought to be public domain, instead of sold to the highest bidder for a profit. That's like making everybody pay for the patent once, and then granting monopoly powers to whomever elects to pay for it twice.
        • Well remember that once the government takes your money in the form of taxes then the money and anything they choose to spend it on belongs to the government and they are free to dispose of it as they wish and according to their own requirements. Personally, I would prefer it if they didn't take quite so much in the first place, but that is another discussion. The government is supposed to act in the best interest of the American people (which includes managing public assets wisely), but they often fail to
  • No. No one can own a patent, not a person, not the public, not a corporation, not the government, not NASA. An invention is not property, it cannot be owned. Replicating a process does not infringe on property rights.

    • Farnsworth: "Hey! Unless this is a nude love-in... get the hell off my property!"
      Free Waterfall Junior: "You can't own property, man."
      Farnsworth: "I can. But that's because I'm not a penniless hippie."

  • The Best Way? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MozeeToby ( 1163751 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:26PM (#25017057)

    They claim they want to sell the patents so that the technology is available for American businesses? Wouldn't the best way to do that be to not patent them at all in the first place? Or at least liscense the patents cheaply to any and all interested American businesses?

    We already paid for the research once, now we'll end up paying for it again when some company begins gouging prices because they hold the patent and no one else can compete.

  • ... that was part of the SCO scam? []

  • by WiglyWorm ( 1139035 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @05:37PM (#25017199) Homepage
    by liscencing them?
  • Say what? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by miffo.swe ( 547642 )

    Correct me if im wrong but since when did NASA fund its own research instead of receiving enormous sums of money from the taxpayers? From where i stand this does look like NASA wants to cash in twice. US taxpayers have already paid for the patents once.

    These patents should be free to use for Americans but by all means use them competitively against the rest of us.

    • by Fastolfe ( 1470 )

      The sum of the money you've paid NASA in taxes, and the value of NASA's cash and assets, will not have changed at the instant this deal goes through. The value of the patents will be converted to real cash. If you buy products from the company that wins the auction, you will pay for the company's expenses (the value of the patent), because it will be priced into their products, but the cash originally taxed for NASA is still in NASA's hands (minus the difference in value of the research vs. patent, which

  • by billcopc ( 196330 ) <> on Monday September 15, 2008 @06:05PM (#25017583) Homepage

    Pardon my unamerican ignorance, but what is NASA exactly ? If they are a government operation, shouldn't these patents be delivered to the public domain ? After all, they are the fruits of tax dollars.

    Maybe I have a weird, overly accurate definition of democracy, but it seems as though government property should be considered public property... but hey, don't mind me and my commonwealth mindset. I'm just a cocky Canadian after all.

    • No, you see there's this "governmental" organization which, while funded by the taxpayer, could waste far more money every year than they could ever hope to get from the US congress. Apparently $20B doesn't go as far as it used to. So instead of getting rid of expensive luxuries, they decided that they could make a few more dollars by selling some of these patent rights. Oh, sure, they could just release them to the public, but then they wouldn't benefit form them.

      You see, NASA is no longer a truly "governm

  • Experience has shown us that the correct way to make money off unexploited patents is to sue people in the Eastern District of Texas.
  • I Smell A Rat (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mpapet ( 761907 ) on Monday September 15, 2008 @06:07PM (#25017633) Homepage

    Question: HOW does it come to pass that the contractor was awarded this?

    James E. Malackowski (CEO of the auction firm) is very well connected in government. He sits on the board of the non-profit running, whose main sponsor is the USPTO.

    His campaign contribution record is decidedly democratic, but the contribution to Henry Hyde's reelection campaign is interesting.

    Is this the proverbial "Smoking Gun?" No. But probably a case of paying into the system to stay inside the beltway on these issues and pick up a contract along the way.

    What I didn't do was see if this was your average "no-bid" private contract for cronies and whether the dollar amount would qualify the matter as a violation in the contracting process. Please contribute!

  • Shotgun velcro!!!
  • If it is full rights, then NASA will start getting sued for infringing on the patents when they build a space craft.

  • Does anyone have a list of the patents numbers?
    Some of the space based GPS stuff already has prior art and I expect all 6 of them can be broken before the auction.

    US Government research belongs to the citizens of the US. If they want to license these patents internationally, great but they need to go to great lengths to ensure that US citizens don't pay twice.

    Maybe the EFF should see if they can get this reconsidered.

  • Patents exist to promote scientific advance.

    The science has already been advanced. Dedicate the patents to the public, and let them work toward future advances based on those patents. If someone wants to try and sell you a system based on those patents, they deserve the benefit of competition.

  • They are going to need to sell a lot more of these to fulfill their goal of putting George Bush on Mars by 2020.
  • The only news here is the Ocean Tomo partnership. NASA has had an office specifically to sell its patents for decades. I used to subscribe to their magazine.

    As for the comics, isn't this just a spiffy bit of journalistic disinegnuity? After figuring it out, I still hit speed bumps when reading it: "...which NASA wants to leverage in commercializing its technology." Yeah, well, "Verbing weirds language." -- Calvin and Hobbes

  • Wasn't NASA funded using US tax dollars when these patents were granted ?
  • Just imagine giving the rights of ownership of these patents to the patent trolls. They will be suing the entire industry until the expiry date of these patents.

"We don't care. We don't have to. We're the Phone Company."