Satellite Abandoned Thanks To Patent On Lunar Flybys

from the promoting-the-progress dept

A ton of folks are all submitting different versions of this story this morning (from a variety of sources), but the original appears to be at Space Daily, where it discusses how satellite company SES Americom has to abandon a satellite that had a botched launch due to a ridiculous patent on the concept of a lunar flyby. Basically, what happened is that SES had a problem with a satellite launch, such that the satellite did not reach the proper orbit (it was intended to be a geostationary satellite used by Echostar). SES then figured out that it could get the satellite into a proper orbit by making use of a lunar flyby. That part is just basic physics. But, at that point, SES discovered that Boeing happens to own a patent on doing this sort of lunar flyby, despite the fact that you can’t patent physics. As someone notes in the article, Boeing merely used some jargon to make basic physics appear as a “process.” If that sounds familiar, you’ll note that it’s the same thing that many patent holders are doing to turn math into patents using software patents.

So, rather than just doing it and having to deal with patent infringement lawsuit, SES tried to play by the rules (no matter how ridiculous) and asked Boeing to license the patent. Unfortunately, the two companies are engaged in a separate legal matter that has SES suing Boeing for $50 million. Boeing took the opportunity to tell SES it would license the patent only if SES dropped the lawsuit. Apparently, SES figured that the $50 million was worth more than saving the satellite, and will instead try to collect the insurance for the botched launch, abandoning the satellite. This may get more interesting, as apparently a third party is interested in buying the satellite and potentially taking on Boeing (or maybe just licensing the very questionable patent). Also, the insurance company apparently was not aware of these alternatives and may push SES to take one of them. Either way, thanks to a patent on physics (which, last I checked, is not something “made by man”) SES has felt the need to abandon a perfectly viable satellite. I’m sure that was exactly how the Founding Fathers expected the patent system to be used. Update: The patent in question is available here.

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Companies: boeing, ses americom

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Comments on “Satellite Abandoned Thanks To Patent On Lunar Flybys”

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115 Comments
angry dude says:

interesting patent

Doesn’t look like a bogus patent to me

Describes some useful space maneuver, cites some non-patent prior art, even some old Soviet paper

Would be in the same category as the Arthur Clark’s original idea about geostationary satellites.
Arthur was just smart to realize that getting a patent would be useless cause it would expire long before such satellite is technicaly possible.
This one’s pretty recent – filed in 1998
I guess experts in the field of space ballistics can give a better opinion on validity, as far as obviousness to an average POSITA back in 1998 is concerned
Back in Apollo times it would certainly be unobvious

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: interesting patent

Who are you, a paid hack for Boeing? That ‘patent’ doesn’t describe anything apart from using orbital dynamics to alter the flight path of a satellite. This a patent on a mathematical fact! Boeing didn’t ‘invent’ the equations used or even develop a ‘unique, non-obvious’ invention. Any decent physicist could have described this ‘process’. The very idea that Boeing can own the affect of the laws of gravity and motion on a physical object is obscene.

MLS (profile) says:

Re: Re: interesting patent

By the definition you apply nothing would ever be patentable since everything depends in some form or another upon a principle of physics. Airplanes must not the patentable because they use a physical principle (Bernoulli’s Equation…albeit for laminar, subsonic flow) to overcome another physical principle, gravity.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: interesting patent

By the definition you apply nothing would ever be patentable since everything depends in some form or another upon a principle of physics.

Um. No. Sorry, on this you’re just wrong. There’s applying physics to build something, and there’s explaining the process of gravity. This patent is basically explaining the process of gravity. It’s nothing *new*.

angry dude says:

Re: Re: Re:2 interesting patent

“This patent is basically explaining the process of gravity”

Besides knowing jackshit about patents you were obviously a D-grade student in physics

Never judge any patent by its title or abstract
You have to go to the claims
Claims describe some very specific sequence of manuevers to change satellite orbit
Gravity is explained by Newton’s Law or Einstein’s General Relativity, if you would

MLS (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 interesting patent

Perhaps I missed something, but I did not read in the patent specification a discourse on the process of gravity. I believe Newton (and perhaps even predecessors) was the one who explained the process.

What Hughes did was discover a means by which to move a satellite from one position to another that in part utlizes a lunar fly-by. At the time Hughes was the preeminent designer and manufacturer of satellites, both for commercial and governmental applications. I daresay that its technical team was second to none, and that for people after the fact to trumpet the clarion call of “obvious, old, etc.” is ill informed second guessing ater the fact.

Sorry, but what they did was realize a quite useful way to solve a specific problem associated with placing a satellite at a specific location in space while minimizing the amount of on board fuel needed to do so. This was by no means a trivial task, and to suggest otherwise represents a lack of appreciation for the problem Hughes faced.

I suggest people actually read the patent and its claims, as well as the prior art cited during prosecution of the application that led to the issuance of the patent, before jumping on a bandwagon that what Hughes did was plainly obvious.

angry dude says:

Re: Re: interesting patent

I’d be glad if Boeing paid me for this
Unfortunately no such luck

As for the laws of gravity or physics in general…

You don’t have a problem with the first patent on a transistor, do you ?

That’s just a very simple combination of laws of physics
Any decent physisist can describe the process and repeat it (nowadays, when the underlying principle seems so obvious to everybody)

How about a patent on a cyclotrone particle accelerator?
Another simple law of physics patented in your definition

Chronno S. Trigger says:

Re: Re: Re: interesting patent

I usually don’t like responding to angry dude’s comments but he seems to be truly mixed up about this and not just arrogantly ignorant.

It’s one thing to patent the particle accelerator itself, but one cannot patent the concept of accelerating an atom to near the speed of light and smashing it into a super dense material (uranium I think) to brake it up.

As for seemingly obvious, it was, for NASA. My dad has a book he got off of eBay that he can use to calculate orbital trajectories from long before computers. People have been setting these orbits up by pencil and slide rule long before 1998 (Filing date).

And besides, I don’t think Boeing is sending anything into a lunar orbit of any kind. How can they patent something they can never use? Can I patent the concept of traveling threw time? I know I can’t do it, but I can think about it really hard.

angry dude says:

Re: Re: Re:2 interesting patent

I didn’t say this patent is valid:
it is kind of late in the space era

As for Boeing – they acquired Huges Communications (with all the IP) as far as I remember
And Huges Aircraft i belive was one of the premiere satellite companies, so I guess it was in line with their everyday business
Heck, what am I doing here: defending a large corporation ?
Better stop now

angry dude says:

Re: Re: Re:2 interesting patent

Interesting..

Any factual references ?

It would make me feel good

In reality, however, the Soviet government used to claim that a lot of groundbreaking inventions were first produced in Russia, which wasn’t nearly true

radio comes to mind first, then laser, probably airplane, space rocket etc etc.

anonymously disgruntled dude says:

Re: Re: Re:3 interesting patent

That is sad, that for a Russian, you know so little about what was truly invented there first. Of course, confusing Russia with Soviet Union is also a bit sad.
A lot of space craft theory has been developed by Tsiolkovsky. Laser theory was indeed created in Soviet Union first. No one ever claimed that Russia created the first airplane, the first rocket or radio for that matter. Marconi’s name is in all the textbooks dealing with radio. Are you sure you were ever anywhere close to Russia?

angry dude says:

Re: Re: Re:4 interesting patent

You are insulting my intelligence, pal

Tsiolkovsky ??? Get real, dude, he was just a crazy dreamer from Kaluga (with all due respect to him and other selfless people like him)
The first real rocket capable of reaching space was built by Werner von Brown – a US import from nazi Germany
Laser is indeed based on the theoretical work by Fabrikant, everybody knows it (I mean everybody with Ph.D. in physics)
However, it has little to do with the invention of an actual laser device itself, which can be rightfully attributed to Gould and Townes (not to Basov and Prohorov of the soviet laser hall of fame)
Marconi ? Perhaps you should know that the real inventor of radio was Tesla (as recently established by US Congress)
Ever heard of Alexander Popov ?
Well, each text book in the old Soviet Union had him as inventor of radio, not Marconu or Tesla
They even have a museum in Russia with the *first in the world* radio apparatus built by Popov
Now get lost, techdirt lemming

dorpass says:

Re: interesting patent

I guess experts in the field of space ballistics can give a better opinion on validity, as far as obviousness to an average POSITA back in 1998 is concerned
Back in Apollo times it would certainly be unobvious

Back in Apollo times it was already obvious, in fact, lunar and planet flyby has been used prior to 1998 and not by Boeing either.

angry dude says:

Re: go ahead and do it

most of techdirt lemmings desperately need just that – brain activity.
they’ll gladly pay you royalties if you can make it happen for them 🙂

Only little gotcha – before you apply for a patent you have to actually invent something and reduce it to practice.
(reduction to practice does not have to be some physical demonstration if you can convince PTO examiner that your method actually works – complete invention description in a patent application constitutes a reduction to practice if it’s suffucient to reproduce the described invention)

Eliot says:

Re: Re: go ahead and do it

most of techdirt lemmings desperately need just that – brain activity.

Thank you.

…before you apply for a patent you have to actually invent something and reduce it to practice…

I think most of the outrage comes from the fact that its simply rediculous to allow patents to extend to this sort of broad methodology. This isn’t a manufacturing process that is new and innovative that describes a specific product, scientists and physicists spend time working out these problems for years, just because Boeing put into practice this theory should not give them a monopoly on this elementary of a process.

angry dude says:

Re: Re: Re: go ahead and do it

–most of techdirt lemmings desperately need just that – brain activity.

-Thank you.

you are very welcome

-This isn’t a manufacturing process that is new and innovative that describes a specific product

Perhaps you should know that patents are not granted for specific products – they are granted for inventions
(actually “discoveries” if we want to stick to the letter of US Constitution)

D-I-S-C-O-V-E-R-I-E-S not products

Eliot says:

Re: Re: Re:2 go ahead and do it

D-I-S-C-O-V-E-R-I-E-S not products

I’m all for semantic debates, but this isn’t addressing the point in contention. To reduce confusion, I’ll say it like this: Boeing didn’t ‘discover’ anything, this is all old discoveries.

Now, I also disagree with the idea that a process even could be patented. It seems to me like patenting a (philosophical or scientific) theory — preventing other people from using something like this doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: You can patent a maneuver?

Can one patent a soccer maneuver which results in getting by another player? Or what about a specific dunk in basketball that really hypes up the crowd? Patent that and then licsense it to all of the NBA players – they need to spend their money on something.

Given that we’ve already seen people patenting “sign spinning” expect to see exactly what you describe above before too long.

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20070501/204446.shtml

Crooks in Office says:

Re: You can patent a maneuver?

It ends when we stop putting the corrupt in places where they have authority to grant such things like this. I wonder how much Boeing paid the examiner. They were smart enough to keep it quiet for 10 years, because this is the first I’ve ever read about it (not to say I’m in anyones loop).

I think whoever,at SES Americom made the decision to give into this one, they need demoted to janitor. They’d probably do more good for the company moping the floors.

Is it just me, or is this country really going nuts? Where did we lose our moral compass.. Hell.. have we ever really had one.. Now my head hurts..

angry dude says:

Re: Re: You can patent a maneuver?

“Is it just me, or is this country really going nuts?”

Unfortunately, very unfortunately, it’s not just you, punk

This country is populated by all kinds of mental retards and imbeciles like you

This shitty blog is a lacmus paper of mass idiocy

Someone, please, invent and patent brain activity for techdirt lemmings !

Kiba (user link) says:

Re: You can patent a maneuver?

We have a moral compass. Just not a moral compass that align with the economic interest of the country very well.

If you ask 100 persons about if people deserve patents. They will probably say yes without examining if it is necessary in the first place or promote economic progress.

Ignorance of economics also play into the hand of a bad moral compass.

People are not trained to think economically nor do they think what is the best for economy. If anything, probably half of the country think that free trade is bad. Unions are good. And MPAA is right to sue people for copyright infringement.

It isn’t even a corrupts few. It is a vast majority with good intentions but are misguided and ignorant.

Heck, patent abuses are just the tip of the ice berg. The bigger question is whether the patent system are necessary in the first place.

Summer Glau says:

Re: Re: Re:

And viola your credibility is gone. If you are going to parry a verbal jab you should always respond in a civil manner with well thought out counter points not unfounded insults which just lower others’ viewpoints of you. This is especially true if your veracity and reputation are already in low opinion.

-Summer Glau

the.arctic (profile) says:

One thing that never seems to come up in all the current patent hubub is that the human genome is partially patented. You, I and thousands of other living things are in part or in whole owned by corporations and the universities they fund to do research. Screw process patents, I want to know why “discovering” the genes that make up the genetic code of diseases can be used to halt non-licensed research on them.

Tom Greenhaw says:

All they have to do is not perform the maneuver in March or September.

The patent specifies that the launch must be made in March or September.

In fact, SES could try to get a patent for performing this maneuver from an existing orbit and recover 50 million.

Oops, this idea is now in the public domain. Forgetting the fact that all this is obvious even to a layman…

Manish Keswani says:

Voice of Reason

I think the Boeing patent is valid. If everybody knew how to do lunar flybys, why didn’t they challenge the Boeing patent?

Maybe what everybody knew is that it is possible to do lunar flybys to put a satellite in geostationary orbit, but what they didn’t know is how to do it. They didn’t know the exact steps to conduct lunar flybys in a precise manner. And Boeing beat everyone to it with their research.

Wouldn’t you pay someone to teach you something that you couldn’t figure out for yourself (first)? Of course it all becomes so obvious once somebody has done it, but the fact still remains that they did it when it was NOT so obvious.

Derek (profile) says:

interesting patent

” nothing would ever be patentable

What is wrong with that?”

Ex: Microsoft trolls for ideas, the second they find a good one. They steal it, and market the crap out of it before any small company ever gets funding. They continue to do this until they make so much money that they can pay thousands of people to go around stealing ideas daily… see a problem?

with that said. the length of a patent should be shortened, maybe like 5 years. if you cant make it happen in 5 years, let someone else try… that would spark a lot more innovation.

Powerkor says:

Elaborating on the rediculous-nesses of the patent system.

Can someone issue me a patent on sub-atomic activity? So everyone and everything will owe me trillions of dollars in royalties in a matter of seconds.

I’ll be nice enough to grant you a license to use my patent for a small payment of course. Just don’t think too hard about this decision or you’ll have to file for bankrupcy!

Joe Smith says:

slingshot and jurisdiction

From Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravitational_slingshot#Historical_origins_of_the_method

In his paper “Tem kto budet chitat’, chtoby stroit’” [To whomsoever will read [this paper] in order to build [an interplanetary rocket]],[1] which he dated “1918-1919,”[2] Yuri Kondratyuk suggested that a spacecraft traveling between two planets could be accelerated at the beginning of its trajectory and decelerated at the end of its trajectory by using the gravity of the two planets’ moons.

Apart from the problem with prior art, it seems to me that there is a problem here with jurisdiction. Since when did American patent jurisdiction extent to the dark side of the moon? What if SES sold the satellite to a foreign company who executed the process from a non-American site – how could that be a violation of an American patent, actionable in American courts.

Jeff Engelhardt (profile) says:

How are we missing something so obvious?

I’m late to this thread, but am shocked that after 52 comments (at my time of responding) nobody has drawn the obvious analogy.

First, this is not patenting physics, it’s patenting a method. Thanks to MLS in comment #45 for making this clear (and I’m suprised that Mike Masnick missed that in the first place). Second, and what’s particularly disturbing about Mike (and everyone else so far) missing this is there was a nice dissertation posted just yesterday on this site about the patenting of methods: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20080409/011406799.shtml

Though not software nor a business method, the Boeing patent in question is clearly analogous. I don’t desire to argue either way on this situation (largely because I’m an employee of Boeing and have both pro and con views of the situation), but the analysis (of whether or not the patent in question should be valid) could render much more insight if one employed the analyses Mike suggested yesterday.

Rick Sarvas says:

Look on the bright side

After thinking about this whole patent anything and everything mentality, I’m wondering if there isn’t going to be an eventual up side to all this: that in within 14 years every dumb and obvious idea that was ever granted patented will be expiring (assuming patent lengths are not extended any further). So, sometime around 2022, you should be able to safely check if two variables are the same without fear of stepping on one of Microsoft’s patents:

http://appft1.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PG01&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=%2220040230959%22.PGNR.&OS=DN/20040230959&RS=DN/20040230959

Until then things are going to suck.

Anonymous Coward says:

Um. No. Sorry, on this you’re just wrong. There’s applying physics to build something, and there’s explaining the process of gravity. This patent is basically explaining the process of gravity. It’s nothing *new*.

Actually, you’re wrong. The patent is describing a method that utilizes gravity to alter the orbit of a satellite. The patent doesn’t cover all lunar flybys. It doesn’t limit the ability of others to use the physics underlying lunar flybys to conduct other orbital alterations. The patent only excludes others from using the methods claimed to alter a satellite’s orbit to a geosynchronous orbit.

If a satellite is not being moved to a geosynchronous orbit, the patent doesn’t apply. If a probe is using a lunar flyby to accelerate toward its destination, the patent doesn’t apply.

One would have thought that with all you’ve written on IP law that you would have learned how to read a patent.

wonderinbear says:

The patent names two persons as inventors, obviosly they have some religious powers as they claim to patent a manuver not a device based on physics which alot of people believe was started by God. So if everyone is right they are Gods who by their powers inveted gravity and chisled the laws fo physics on stone tablets and sent them to the patent office where a hard working government pinhead issued a patent. Giving Boeing the “supreme being” the power to regulate space as the manuver could be used for interplanitary travel as well. Well there goes NASA or maybe they patented the moon as a night light device?

MLS (profile) says:

About this Article

Having done a bit of reading up on just what this issue is all about, I learned that the satellite at issue was the AMC-14 manufactured by Lockheed Martin for SES, and
was launched in mid-March aboard a Russian Proton rocket. For some unexplained reason a malfunction during the later stages of the launch resulted in the satellite being placed in a lower orbit than needed for it to function properly.

The above referenced article makes it appear as if the orbit problem could have been rectified had Boeing merely agreed to let SES use the method covered by Boeing’s patent. This has a nice “anti-patent” ring to it until you discover that there were other methods available to achieve the same goal, but that all methods, including the one covered by the patent, carried unspecified risks, there was no guarantee of success, and that in any event the useful life of the satellite would have been significantly reduced because of the need to use on board fuel to help achieve repositioning into the proper orbit.

I can well understand why Boeing took the position it did (it is embroiled in a lawsuit on another matter with SES and this was a chance to make it go away). I can also well understand why SES took the position it did (it did not want to forego its claim against Boeing on the other matter to pursue a method, among several available, that may or may not even work).

Of course, it did not hurt that SES had the satellite insured. Rather than work a deal with Boeing or try other alternate methods, it decided to declare the satellite a total loss and submitted a claim with its insurer in the amount of $150M.

It is interesting to note that things did not turn out the way they did because of a patent, but because of the economics associated with trying to salvage the botched launch of the satellite. Moreover, it is interesting to note that there apparently were other methods to use for such a salvage attempt, but that no method was deemed satisfactory. Let me put this another way. The patent covers only one method. Apparently there are several others that could also have been used. Given this state of affairs, it can hadly be said that by having this patent Boeing is essentially foreclosing all other approaches.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: About this Article

No one was saying it foreclosed all other methods — but it did foreclose the one that SES felt was most likely to achieve what was necessary.

How is that reasonable? If you were to sit someone down, explain to them the situation and they worked out the physics and explained this solution… only to be told you can’t because it’s patented?

I don’t think your explanation changes the story in any meaningful way.

Iron Chef says:

Re: Re: About this Article

If you were to sit someone down, explain to them the situation and they worked out the physics and explained this solution… only to be told you can’t because it’s patented?

Mike, your partially right, but this is not the reality in which a large company which has multiple people from multiple backgrounds think. I think this is a cultural issue. In fact, I can almost imagine the telephone conversation. Understand that the French think and approach problems differently than we do in the US.

MLS (profile) says:

Re: Re: About this Article

I must apologize for misconstruing that the below title:

Satellite Abandoned Thanks To Patent On Lunar Flybys

Sounds to me as if a satellite was abandoned because of a patent on lunar flybys. However, investigation reveals this was not the reason why it was abandoned. Moreover, there is nothing to suggest this is what “SES felt was the most likely to…”. It was but one among several, and all were found wanting for a variety of reasons.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: About this Article

I must apologize for misconstruing that the below title:
Satellite Abandoned Thanks To Patent On Lunar Flybys

I believe that title was based on the article at space-travel.com.

However, investigation reveals this was not the reason why it was abandoned.

Well if you have evidence that the article was untrue then please present it. Then we can present that evidence to Space Travel and see if they’ll retract their article. But please note that the mere word of an anonymous blog commenter isn’t exactly evidence.

Iron Chef says:

Re: About this Article

MLS’s comments would be something that should be considered as C-Level material. If he’s not already enrolled in a succession plan at his work, maybe he should be.

After all, wasn’t it Einstein who said something to the likes of that the ability to ‘Holding two opposing thoughts at the same time, and agreeing with both’ is the definition of Intelligence.

Your post shows you know much. Lovely and Bravo.

Iron Chef says:

Re: Re: Re: About this Article

I must admit I suffer from a condition known as “try and get facts before forming an opinion”.

Ah MLS,
So get married, and when the wife gets home, you can tell her how everyone’s wrong on the internet and your company hired you because you saw the problem for what it is. If you’re real good at it, she’ll see your posts as trying to grow the next generation who are in attached to this completely wired world and see that you have some sort of a fan club.

But as for the 9 to 5– if you can share this perspective you have with higher-ups, you’ll be worth your weight in gold.

MLS (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 About this Article

There seems to be more than one who posts using the name “Anonymous Coward”, so it is hard to tell from this post which one you are.

You appear to be the one with a decidedly “patents are bad” predisposition, and likely the one who noted above that the particular patent should never have been granted because the claimed method was obvious. Perhaps I am mistaken, but you also seem to be in the camp that “copyrights are bad”.

The sole purpose of my posts has been to note that before people start fanning flames based upon unsupported facts, they should do the intellectually honest thing and actually familiarize themselves with such mundane things like (1) what the referenced patent actually covers, (2) take a look at the facts associated with the situation to try and determine is there is even a causal connection between the patent and abandonment of the satellite by the satellite owner, and (3) once armed with at least some semblance of an understanding of the relevant factors make their points in a manner that represents a cogent presentation.

Anonymouse Howard says:

Re: Re: Re:5 About this Article

Well, yes – I frequently call executives at major corporations to obtain details of patent disputes. They are very friendly and responsive to all my questions.

I also call the authors of patents often in order to clarify things before I draw conclusions. They freely and openly answer my pointed questions and they do not get defensive.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 About this Article

Perhaps next time you might want to consider doing something like I did when asking around about the matter. One phone call to an exec at Lockheed answered a lot of questions, both technical and legal. Talking with a friend of mine whose name appears on that patent also helped.

Oh, so that’s how you managed to form such an unbiased, balanced and objective opinion on the matter. Good thing you didn’t talk to the people at SES as well because I’m sure they would have only confused you. (snicker)

MLS (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 About this Article

If bias exists, it is reflected in the comments of so many who immediately accepted at face value that the Boeing patent was a significant reason why the satellite was declared a total loss. The technical side of the AMC-14 program was under LMC’s control, and it was LMC who provided the technical options avaiable for trying to move the satellite into the correct orbit. Several options were considered, including the one described in the patent, but all of them were eventually rejected because of the costs involved, the absence of any guarantee of success no matter which option was adopted, the fact that none of the available options, even if successful, would have resulted in placement of the satellite into the correct orbit where it could be usefully employed for any period of time approximating its design specs, etc. Under these circumstances the most prudent business course was determined to be to declare the satellite a total loss and file an insurance claim.

The only “bias” I have is trying to understand the dynamics underlying business decisions such as happened here. Once the technical options and the odds of their success are understood, as well as costs involved in trying to get the satellite into the correct orbit and its useful life once there, the business decision and why it was made becomes quite clear.

In the final analysis this was a business decision upon which the much maligned patent had virtually no impact. It seems the only impact the patent had was to once more give certain individuals the opportunity to raise the hue and cry “patents are bad” and the “system is broken”.

If one does not like patents and copyrights, for whatever reasons that may be, then so be it. At the very least, however, one should take the time to try and figure out if this particular situation supports their position. Even a relatively modest effort quickly revealed it was not. Disagree if you will, but recognize that by not understanding the relevant facts all you end up doing is undercutting the persuasive force of your arguments.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 About this Article

I do not care about the decision that led up to the satellite being declared abandoned, and that really has no bearing upon whether the patent is valid or not.

I fail to understand why you attempt to cloud the issue.

It is a bad patent.

You can not patent the “laws of nature”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 About this Article

If bias exists, it is reflected in the comments of so many who immediately accepted at face value that the Boeing patent was a significant reason why the satellite was declared a total loss.

We are basing our opinions on an article from an established publisher. Please excuse us for not taking the word of an anonymous blog commenter over that of the established publisher. We’re just not that stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 About this Article

Perhaps next time you might want to consider doing something like I did when asking around about the matter. One phone call to an exec at Lockheed answered a lot of questions, both technical and legal. Talking with a friend of mine whose name appears on that patent also helped.

Perhaps you should identify yourself and name your sources if you want us to believe you. So far you’re just an anonymous blog commenter claiming anonymous sources. In other words, not exactly credible. At this point, I’m sticking to believing the published article over you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: About this Article

It is interesting to note that things did not turn out the way they did because of a patent, but because of the economics associated with trying to salvage the botched launch of the satellite.

The referenced article directly states otherwise. So you’re basically saying that the article was untrue and it comes down to your word against that of Space Travel. Now, I don’t know a lot about Space Travel and the byline on the article just says it was by “Staff Writers” but at least the publisher isn’t anonymous and so has some reputation at stake. You on the other hand just seem to be some anonymous blog commenter. So unless you at least identify yourself, I’m going to believe Space Travel over you.

Jeff (profile) says:

Re: Capt Obvious

I’m rusty on my patent law, but Hughes/Boeing probably wouldn’t have been able to sue a gov’t institution like NASA for ‘infringement’ – isn’t there some sort of march in right that allows the government the ability to practice a parent without it being infringement? Someone help me here . . .

. . . that is, of course, if NASA was in fact actually using the patented method – we’re not talking like Boeing has a patent on every type of slingshot and orbiting method. Even if NASA was using the method and didn’t have the march in rights, there might be a difficulty of proving infringement. Leave it to someone like SES to admit to it . . .

guess this is a case of it being better to ask for forgiveness than for permission

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Patents are Given to Second-Raters.

In KSR v. Teleflex, the Supreme court recognized that a result could be considered obvious if it would inevitably be arrived at by a systematic process of research. I suggest that one can apply this to artificial intelligence programs. Obviousness can be defined by whether an artificial intelligence program discovers the disputed method, or something like it.

Let us think about how we might build a general program for discovering spacecraft orbits and trajectories, and so proving their obviousness. Outer space is substantially empty. Gravity decays as the inverse-square of distance, and there are not very many gravity sources close enough to significantly affect the motion of a spacecraft. This means that large sections of space are continuous, in the calculus sense of the word. Small changes in a spacecraft’s launch parameters produce small changes in its trajectory. We may not be able to write differential equations describing the continuity in the spacecraft’s motion, but we can use the continuity anyway. For example, we can use the mathematical techniques of interpolation and successive approximation. Suppose that we start with a spacecraft flight simulator, that is, a computer program which computes the gravity acting on a spacecraft at any time and place, and works out its acceleration and motion. Now, taking a rudimentary Artificial Intelligence twist, suppose we launch a fleet of a million or so imaginary spacecraft, at slightly different speeds and angles, etc. We track them, eliminating those which do obviously incorrect things like crashing into various celestial bodies, or escaping from the planetary or solar system and heading off into the far distance. The remnants of our fleet will be more or less evenly spaced out over an area. We can choose the ones which went approximately where they were supposed to go. We can then repeat the experiment, covering the range of initial parameters of those imaginary spacecraft which behaved comparatively well. The program can be set up to do this kind of thing automatically, and to do it over and over again until trillions of imaginary spacecraft have been launched. We would be talking about a program which displays intelligence to about the same extent as a chess-playing program. Within their scopes of competence, such programs outperform human world champions, such as Gary Kasparov. The core of this idea is not original with me, by the way. It is a development of something I ran across in an aerospace engineering journal from about 1965, an article talking about the basically rational and predictable nature of space flight.

The inventors of patent #6,116,545, Salvatore and Ocampo, filed in 1998. For something done at that late date, one has to critique them for being comparatively slow to see the implications of Artificial Intelligence, for not being aware of the kind of work which John Holland was doing at the Santa Fe institute, and not striving to adapt it to their own field. I have compiled a bibliography which, incidentally, lists relevant articles in six different general interest magazines before 1998. The use of Artificial Intelligence was not something esoteric, as it might have been considered before 1990. Not to have been aware of this kind of thing by 1998 is a sign of profound intellectual incuriousness. What Salvatore and Ocampo were doing was like working on particular chess problems and ignoring the challenge of Deep Blue. A lot of the most distinguished work in various sciences in recent years has consisted in people finding ways to use Artificial Intelligence to automate what scientists do, and to do a lot more of it at lower cost.

Of course, for some people, this is very threatening. For the “cookbook engineer,” with poor social skills, minimal command of the English language, and little discernible breadth of intellect, Artificial Intelligence offers the promise of being replaced by a machine.

Artificial Blog Entry says:

Re: Patents are Given to Second-Raters.

Are you suggesting that an AI computer program is capable of performing a more thorough analysis of patent submissions than the US patent office examiners ?

This is interesting, and might some day become useful, however – I’m sure that it is or will become encumbered in the same patent mess that it is suppose to help alleviate. In addition, I would not trust it to be the only source of analysis.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

To: Artificial Blog Entry, # 107

I would not say that the machine would assess patents– it would give examiners grounds for perfunctorily rejecting certain kinds of patents. Apart from spacecraft orbits, chemical patents would probably be amenable to this approach. These are relatively developed fields, where the original science– the kind of stuff people get Nobel Prizes for– dropped out anything from one hundred to four hundred years ago. In these fields, it is relatively difficult to do things which are not so structured that they could not be written up as computer programs.

The patent office’s traditional approach to dealing with perpetual motion machines was to demand that the inventor produce a working model. They would set it going, and lock it away in a closet somewhere. Eventually, when they opened the closet, they would find that the machine had run down, and ergo it was not a perpetual motion machine after all. It therefore failed the “reduced to practice” test, and could not be patented. This was much less fatiguing than arguing over complex blueprints with fanatical inventors of perpetual motion machines.

A computer program’s thought processes, if one may use that term, are open to inspection. A patent examiner’s thought processes are not, and he cannot prove that they are not tainted by knowledge subsequent to the alleged date of invention. One can write a program, carefully labeling everything, complete with footnotes about prior art. It is comparatively easy to establish that the matter in patent applications is not in the program– that the program is composed exclusively of components on a more basic level. Artificial Intelligence programs tend not to be very big, as programs go. They have a few basic mechanisms, which they use over and over again, to generate more complex structures. It is no big deal to incorporate counters which indicate however many gazillion possibilities the program tested and rejected. The patent examiner cannot prove how many possibilities he subconsciously rejected in the course of reaching his intuitive sense that something was obvious. So he has to have some kind of formal or legalistic method for coming to that conclusion. KSR v. Teleflex provided a portfolio of legalistic methods for finding obviousness.

Of course, you have to recognize that in certain types of “formal games,” such as chess, computer programs do perform at a higher level than humans. The main reason is that humans cannot shut out their irrelevant knowledge. In adding the numbers “2” and “2,” I am compelled to think of the preposition “to,” and the adverb “too,” and of duets, and of the various concepts of dualism, etc., etc., etc. It is hardly surprising that, with all that mental baggage, I cannot add as well as a cheap pocket calculator. The same goes for playing chess or cards. There are programs which do very practical analogues of chess. One example would be the optimizing components of programming language compilers. Another class would be programs which solve certain kinds of routing or scheduling problems, eg. laying out the wiring connections in integrated circuits and printed circuit boards. The idea is to have as few wiring layers as possible, which means that the connections must be laid out in such a way as not to cross each other more than they have to. Such programs work out a highly efficient configuration by organized and repeated trial and error. Programs of this type have been in fairly widespread use for at least thirty years.

In most cases, such programs have been created for actual use, rather than merely to prove points about patents. Probably the single biggest exception would be pharmaceutical patents. People are doing work along such lines in fields relating to pharmaceuticals, but this does not address the main economic issue of the industry. Most of the money in pharmaceutical research goes to human testing– that is, testing safety and efficacy in humans. Rats, the previous stage of research, are much cheaper than humans, not to mention being expendable. Human testing does not properly constitute invention as defined by the patent law, and the drugmakers depend on the claim that certain chemical structures are unobvious. Ultimately, the remedy is to pay drugmakers in a different way, one which does not depend on the idea of invention.

Artificial Blog Entry says:

Re: To: Artificial Blog Entry, # 107

I’m sorry but it sounds like you are trying to sell something.
I dont buy it.

I can see it now …
“Dear members of the jury, my clients patent is valid because this AI computer program sayes so. And may I remind you of all the prior testimony about how it explores all possibilities and produces valid conclusions … blah blah blah”

This is not a substitute for eliminating bad patents to begin with. I do not need a computer to tell me that you can not patent the laws of physics.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Boeing's Gravity Patent

The main problem is with the Patent Office. They really need to employ personel that can actualy use their heads for more than maintaining a vacuum.

The problem at the patent office is political and originates at a much higher level than the examiners. If you’re a patent examiner and management wants you to be generous in awarding patents then you better be so if you want to keep your job.

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