Sunday, September 18, 2016

Rocket Companies, But Not SpaceX, Are Collecting Rocket Patents

          By Henry Stewart

Cover c/o CPA Global.
Privately owned rocket companies, many of which have announced their presence, promoted their products and criticized their competitors since the September 1st, 2016 SpaceX accident when a Falcon-9 rocket catastrophically blew up on the launch pad, provide compelling anecdotal evidence that the space industry is about to enter an intensively competitive phase.

And now, a large intellectual property focused firm has issued a report showing rocket companies perform at least one other business function common to other highly competitive and highly disruptive industries.

They collect patents to guard their intellectual property (IP) from competition and protect their bottom line from patent trolls.

Jersey Island based CPA Global has issued a thirty-six page "Technology Intelligence Report on Commercial Manned Spaceflight" focused around "an in-depth patent analysis on manned spaceflight innovation."

As outlined in the August 25th, 2016 CPA Global press release, "It is rocket science: how manned spaceflight is the new frontier of innovation," nations with active manned space programs, such as the United States, China and Russia, "represent three-fifths of all patent protection with a worldwide total of more than 4,300 patented space innovations filed since 1960."

Key findings of the report include the following:
Manned spaceflight patent activity is much larger and diverse than one would anticipate. While it’s difficult to calculate, we estimate that there are over 17,000 manned spaceflight inventions that have been patented since the early 1960s.
Patent flings are trending sharply upwards, particularly since China’s entry into the crewed space race. China’s frst astronaut, Yang Liwei, flew aboard the Shenzhou 5 space craft on October 15, 2003, making China the third country in the world with a manned spaceflight program.
The fling trend is also due to increasing patent activity by private launch providers in the United States – where a clear transition from the public to private sector is currently underway. 
The US, China and Russia, each with active manned spaceflight programs, represent three-fifths of all patent flings. Other countries, including Japan, represent only 5% of the patent activity that’s occurred in the last 5 years.

Direct competitors in a cut-throat marketplace. United Launch Alliance (ULA) president and CEO Tory Bruno, Blue Origin founder and owner Jeff Bezos and Arianespace chairman and CEO Stéphane Israël operate rocket companies which have responded to the September 1st, 2016 SpaceX explosion at Cape Canaveral in different, but decidedly opportunistic ways. As outlined in  the September 14th, 2014 Space News article, "ULA says it could accommodate additional Atlas 5 launch next year," ULA has offered increased capacity, and the roll-out of its RapidLaunch program, which would allow satellite providers to schedule a launch as a primary payload aboard an ULA Atlas 5 rocket in as little as three months from purchase. Blue Origin, as outlined in the September 17th, Headline and Global News post, "Plans for a Powerful Orbital-Class Launcher Revealed," has released plans for a powerful new class of  launcher to compete with both ULA and SpaceX offerings. Ariannespace seemed the most philosophical, at least that's the impression left after reading the September 14th, 2016 Via Satellite post, "After SpaceX-Amos 6 Loss, Arianespace Sees Demand Surge." Perhaps that stoicism grew from reading the September 16th, 2016 Space News post, "Mowry leaving Arianespace for Blue Origin," which reported on Clay Mowry, the longtime president of Arianespace’s US subsidiary, who left to join Blue Origin.  Photo's c/o Zimbio, River Janga & Arianespace.

Top patent holders listed in the report included NASA (mostly because of its long history, since "securing patent protection is not a core strategy of the agency"), the Boeing Company, Russian based RSC Energia (which together vie for the largest amount of recent patent applications) and the European based Airbus Group.

The report also listed Lockheed Martin, General MotorsMicrosoft, Thales Group, a variety of Japanese businesses (who have mostly "existed the industry"), the French aerospace engine manufacturer Safran SA, US defence contractor Harris Corporation and Blue Origin (a private spaceflight company founded by Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos) as holders of substantial amounts of rocket and space focused patents.

The SpaceX “no-IP” strategy, which makes the company unique among the firms referenced in the report, also came in for comment. It said, "so far, SpaceX has successfully navigated the IP minefeld, but considering the volume of information included in this study, it is likely that this test will not be the last."

For more on the US patent law system and the SpaceX approach, its worth checking out the January 6th, 2016 post, "Is the US Patent System Broken?"

The increasing amount of private patents issues as compared to government patents. As outlined in the report, "the shift to private sector manned spaceflight has seen a reversal of technical focus. Industry (once) supported government programs by supplying parts and components (guidance, electronics, life support etc.), but commerce is now fully engaged in the development of “core” space technologies such as propulsion and spacecraft design.." Graph c/o CPA Global.

Canada was cited for Canadian Space Agency (CSA) patents related to its Mobile Services System (MSS), which is used on the International Space Station (ISS).

It's also worth noting that, as outlined in the March 1st, 2015 post, "The REAL Reason our Next Space Agency Head is a Marketing Maven and IP Commercializer," CSA president Sylvain Laporte was once the commissioner of patents and registrar of trademarks in the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO).

However, no Canadian companies were cited in the report and Canada was not considered to be one of the important IP generators.

Looks like the great white north is going to sit this one out.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

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