Hey, Didn't Taxpayers Pay For Those Patents NASA Is Auctioning Off?

from the i-thought-so dept

ReallyEvilCanine writes in to let us know that Ocean Tomo, the patent auctioning company has worked out an agreement to auction off a package of 25 NASA patents covering things like signal processing, GPS for spacecraft and sensor technologies. Ocean Tomo always presents itself as somehow creating value from patents, but always seems to ignore how its version of creating value often means significant value lost to actual innovators. In this case, there’s an even bigger question: didn’t taxpayers pay for those patents by funding NASA? So why is some company now going to benefit from them, while locking the public out? In effect, the public is paying twice (at potentially inflated prices) for these inventions. Yet, you won’t hear that from Ocean Tomo or the press reports about this auction, which note:

“Creating a market for patented technology funded by NASA benefits both the government and the commercial sector that will take advantage of it.”

That leaves out the taxpayers who funded this in the first place and is simply incorrect. It harms the commercial sector by making them pay again for something. If NASA wanted to benefit the commercial sector, it could have placed those patents in the public domain, so that the commercial sector could compete to do something useful with them, thereby spurring on competition and more innovation.

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Companies: nasa, ocean tomo

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Comments on “Hey, Didn't Taxpayers Pay For Those Patents NASA Is Auctioning Off?”

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Anonymous Coward says:


This has been going on for years and years, except that in the past it has been a giveaway.

I worked for NASA CASI in Baltimore and saw NASA-produced booklets championing their great giveaways of technology, so here’s an example.

Those groved cement highways are a direct invention by NASA. The grooves disperse more water and reduce the chances of hydroplaning. They were developed by NASA for making airplane landings safer, and then the tech was *GIVEN* to Boeing (I’m pretty sure it was Boeing).

So, at least NASA is now getting some payback — I don’t particularly like the fact that taxpayer-funded inventions are now going to be used to make us pay more, but at least NASA is getting something out of the deal now.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

lol, did you even read the intent of the story? Your perspective is so tainted from having worked at NASA that you don’t see the problem. TONS of patents come from the government. While Gore likes to claim he invented the internet, it was the defense department, and colleges that created the infrastructure and patents for the internet that exists today. The entire problem with the story above is that in the past, as you said, the technology was GIVEN BACK TO THE PEOPLE THAT PAID FOR IT, NOT SOLD BACK TO THEM. How do you think NASA has the money to hire anyone to create patents? THROUGH TAX PAYER MONEY! Go back to working a government job, as you obviously have no idea how economics work.

Ron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:


Legislative inventions, of course, have a storied place in presidential politics.

Vice President Al Gore’s discussion of the prominent role he played in the legislation that brought about the Internet led Republicans to accuse him for years of having “invented” the Internet. It stemmed from an interview he gave with CNN in which he said that while in Congress, he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

Take it for what it’s worth or not worth!


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The whole “Gore invented the Internet” thing pales in comparison to his “humans are causing the Earth to change its climate” BS.

Humans couldn’t change the Earth’s climate if we tried. If we actually could cause it, the Earth would kill us off to get rid of the threat, then go back to its business of being the only inhabitable planet of which we know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“The real question is: Why is NASA patenting this stuff in the first place?

It’s not like they have competition.

Seems to me tax payer research ought not to be patented. If nasa discovers something, great share it with the public.”

I agree, why do they patent stuff? What is the benefit to them from market protection? It would seem the opposite would be beneficial, if private companies were allowed to bring products to market from these breakthroughs, they would be likely to contribute to thier greater development?

gobsmacked says:

Re: Re: Re:

If they don’t patent it then someone else could and then restrict the use of it by everyone through an onerous licensing arrangement. The problems not in the patent, it’s in the licensing. Plenty of organizations hold patents on ideas and inventions that they then grant full and unlimited licenses to anyone who wants one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Technically, I think NASA needs to patent these techs so someone else doesn’t say “oh, look what nasa came up with… PATENT”.

However, I do agree that they should patent the technologies and then put them in the public domain. In fact, it should be LAW that taxpayer funded research patents automatically become public domain. (and since when/why is that NOT the case???)

interval says:

Re: What a bunch of bull

> I just wonder who is padding their own pockets on this deal?

Just listen to the words of Watergate insider Deep Throat and …

“…follow the money.”

His words still ring true today. As well as the crap going on Wall St., its just another bunch of thieves gutting us, the tax payers. I wonder how long before there’s nothing left and they move on to another carcass?

Steve R. (profile) says:

Appalling Corporate Spin

Great post. Corporate spin beyond comprehension.==> “A major component of NASA Goddard’s Innovative Partnerships Program’s mission is to transfer NASA technology to the commercial marketplace, said IPP program office chief Nona Cheeks.” I wonder if they attended Microsoft’s English course on applying Orwell’s Newspeak. Once these patents become privatized, we will have a rain of lawsuits claiming infringement.

Privatization of the radio spectrum is another issue that needs to be closely monitored. Those who advocate it, have yet to provide a clear picture of what that would mean. If the privatization of public patents serves as a model, I would envision a private spectrum where we would have to pay some spectrum owner a “toll” every time we turn on our microwave or use our WiFi connection.

To carry this to an even more absurd extreme, light bulbs emit RF energy. I would assume that someone would claim this segment of the RF spectrum and insist we pay a usage “toll” when we use our lights!

Public patents should remain in the public domain. Everyone benefits since there is no “toll booth” obstructing the use of the technology.

NeoConBushSupporter says:

Seriously think for a minute

Don’t the businesses that will enjoy the benefit of those patents pay the people that pay the taxes. You techdirt hippies need to grow up and face that fact that it is the wealth of the ruling class that keeps you in luxury and freedom. Don’t play with things you don’t understand, like the international macro-economic system.

VOTE McCain 2008 – The politics of failure have failed, together we can make them work again.

NeoConBushSupporter says:

Re: Re: Seriously think for a minute

“Perhaps they do pay the people that pay taxes, but
most of them are now in Argentina, India, China, and Pakistan.

How does this help us in the US?”

Its called a GLOBAL economy . . .

VOTE McCain 2008 – Becuase only a true Washington insider, can truly change Washington.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Seriously think for a minute

Ah, your logic is undeniably illogical.

First, you state the following:

> Don’t the businesses that will enjoy
> the benefit of those patents pay the
> people that pay the taxes.

Then you claim that it’s a global economy.
Sorry, Charlie. You are not gifted, you are
contradictory. Taxes in Pakistan don’t help
me with social services here.

You also previously stated:

> You techdirt hippies need to grow up
> and face that fact that it is the
> wealth of the ruling class that
> keeps you in luxury and freedom.

So, what is it? Taxes or the largesse of
wealthy people that keeps me in luxury and freedom?

Phil says:

Re: Seriously think for a minute

Apparently you don’t understand the international macro-economic system or maybe you live under a rock. Watch the news. Read a paper. Do a little research and maybe you will notice the economy crashing around us! This is thanks to people like you who continue to support this administration and are hoping to continue the decline with McCain.

Enrico Suarve says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Seriously think for a minute

Personally I think NeoConBushSupporter is one of the funniest trolls in ages

Seriously “VOTE McCain 2008 – The politics of failure have failed, together we can make them work again.”


How humorless are the Obamadrones that they don’t get this?

Feed away – I for one am laughing hysterically and nervously at the lack of a real difference between the two ‘main’ candidates, and need all the light relief I can get

Vote Obama – You might end up slightly less fucked (If you’re lucky)

Alex (user link) says:

I agree that it would be very excellent to see the patents put into the public domain, allowing any corporation or individual to commercialize the technologies/methods…

But seeing NASA sell them doesn’t bother me in the least. I’d like to see NASA getting more funding and it doesn’t look to be forthcoming from our tax dollars. If a corporation is willing to buy the patents it seems like a win win to me. The corp will capitalize on its investment, NASA gets more money, and we can buy the products/services using the tech. If NASA was flush with cash, I might find your point more palatable.

The way I see it, that patents/tech are paid for, we paid for it, it’s done. Sure I’d like to see more say in where my tax dollars go, but this just seems like whining to me. What about all those pencils and pens that our tax money bought NASA? We didn’t get to use those either. No, the money was used for the purpose it was taken for, there aren’t loose ends.

Anonymous Coward says:




Nasa is a business, and like all buisnesses they need funding to stay in operation. NASA is run by people who are above the law. Try to hold them accountable for anything and you’ll get no where; they can do whatever the hell they very well please. They could walk into your home, shoot your dog, fuck your wife, steal your kids and unless you take action yourself RIGHT THEN AND THERE, there’s really nothing you can do to get justice.

Go to court, have a judge tell you “Do you have any idea how much it’s going to cost….” and there you have it; money. They’ve got shitloads, you have next to nothing and the bottom line is always money.

More money = more freedom = America. God bless it.

Steve R. (profile) says:

Good Point

The US Government does sell/lease resources such as oil and gas, and spectrum. Nevertheless, a case can be made that we get a greater economic return with a “free” patent than a patent that is “sold”.

With a “free” patent the company that uses it can sell the product cheaper as the cost of the patent does not have to be included. Furthermore, companies using the patent can freely compete.

With a “sold” patent, the amortized cost of the patent has to be included in the price of the product. Additionally, the patent holder will have a monopoly on the use of that patent. From the perspective of a “free market” this would not be efficient.

mcs says:


So many people CLAIMING they own the government while also supporting a presidential candidate who will put more power into the government. Line ’em up, Person A: more taxing to pay government programs that “help” citizens take care of themselves…less liberty, Person B: more programs that “protect” citizens from scary things while sending Americans to die for “freedom”…less liberty.

In my opinion,
This is just another way of not having to tax us for NASA’s overhead. They are going to get the money they need one way or the other. Either they get more funding from the government or they sell their patents and fill in the gap.

Internet piracy sure has made a lot of selfish people. It’s like the guy who gets pulled over by a cop and gives him/her the “My taxes pays your salary” routine.

MLS says:

Auction of NASA Patents

There is a less than 0% chance under these circumstances that any attorney thoroughly familiar with patent law as it applies to federal agencies would advise a client to even attend the auction if the client has any designs to ever enforce the patents either offensively or defensively. The reasons are much too numerous for a mere blog comment, but suffice it to say that if anyone actually bids and purchases these patents, the ability to exploit them is nil (and “nil” is an understatement).

BTW, for those who may believe that NASA will be lawfully able to retain the proceeds of the auction, federal law requires that such funds be returned to the US Treasury. A federal agency by law may not “augment appropriated funds”, which would be the case were NASA to add such funds to its “piggy bank”.

Mike (profile) says:


Do police departments give away their cars when they get new ones? Do public schools and the land they reside on just get donated to the public when they are closed?

Those are both scarce resources. It’s quite different with an infinite resource, such as a process or an idea.

Learn some economics.

I would suggest you do the same, starting with understanding the difference between rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods.

snowburn14 says:

Re: Re: NASA

The trouble is, it’s a lot easier to see the benefit of something as tangible as a specific sum of money paid to NASA than it is to see the benefit to society as a whole of free use of the technology/processes/whatever. You can’t really place a price tag on what people will gain from free market use of these ideas, be it through simple reduction in price since the company(ies) didn’t have to pay for the patent, or through improved quality (and again price) through the competition it would allow. But every dollar NASA gets for those patents is a dollar that didn’t have to come from taxpayers. It may not actually affect the money set aside for them in the budget, of course, but there would then be a benefit of increased funding for NASA. Not everyone will see that as particularly beneficial, but since the argument is not whether NASA should be getting any money at all, we’ll take it for granted that it’s money well spent.
Also a problem, is that there may not BE any practical commercial application for this stuff. Odds are, there is, but if these were left in the public domain, and nobody did anything with them, that’d be zero benefit to the taxpayers, unless you can put a value on the security of knowing we’re free to do with them what we wish. It’s a losing battle convincing a culture of instant gratification that they’re better off leaving the possibility of a more efficient market than taking a lump sum of cash now. Personally, I think NASA should just license the technology for a set rate to anyone who wants it instead of transferring the patent and creating a monopoly on it. Not quite as efficient perhaps, but a more tangible benefit to the taxpayer…though in the end we’re probably talking a few cents per person anyway, so who cares?

Confused says:

Confusion Abounds

NASA develops ideas or products which it patents. These ideas or products were paid for by the government which is funded by taxpayer money. The patents are then appropriately owned by the U.S. Citizens.
Logically, these patents should be then made available to U.S. Companies and private citizens for use. NASA still holds the patents allowing the government to restrict the production or implementation to U.S. citizens or companies. Now I may be over simplifying this but is this a problem?

BambiB says:

Government FUBAR

There’s a really simple solution to this:

1) Patent the technology and license it free for Domestic use by US citizens.
2) License the technology at a price for any extra-national use.

This will have the effect of generating revenue from overseas for any technology used overseas. If the tech is used domestically (to created jobs or cheaper do-hickeys) then no license fees.

If the company employs foreign workers or sells overseas, then the license fees kick in and the taxpayers recover a bit of their investment – so the whores in Washington can blow it on something really stupid, like a $700 billion “bailout” of their rich friends and campaign contributors.

BbdHome says:

I wrote this somewhere else about 2 week ago.

Socialism is good for the rich but communism for everybody else.

NASA purpose is to serve as a welfare system for corporations, namely aerospace corporations like boeing and lockheed martin. NASA ($18 Billion budget, taxpayers money), along with The Pentagon System ($400 Billion budget, taxpayers money) take on the cost and risk by footing the bill for all of the PURE research and delevepment, e.g. the earliest stages of computers, aerospace, internet, containerization, automation, etc. NASA and The Pentagon is where we got these innovations, and on avarage taking up to 20 years to get to the level they are now.

Because these technologies in their earliest concepts are very insufficient, weren’t profitable for the corporations and corporate fortune 500 aren’t willing to take on the risk and waste, so the taxpayer has to moves in and carry out there development to sufficiency and understanding once that is accomplist then corporations move back in and you know the story from then…. Boeing sells you modified bombers to travel on ($2.5bn profit), IBM sells you the computers ($10bn profit), AOL sells you the internet, automation is used to replace taxpaying workers, etc.

The department of health, The department of energy serve the same purpose but feed corporations like Pfizer ($20bn profit) General Electric ($21bn profit), etc.

Going back to the pentagon and NASA (meaning taxpayer), they also serve to hand out military, space contracts to corporations after of course the taxpayer develop for new technology to sufficiency so that it is profitable.

JC says:

Re: Re:

I think way too much is being made of this whole use of public funds thing as it relates to technology and innovation. NASA is not alone in this, and it isn’t just for the benefit of big corporations. In fact, quite the opposite is true. All federal agencies (funded by US taxpayers) are required to make a portion of funds (~2%) from the prior years budgets as grants to research institutions and more importantly, small businesses. These grants which are in the billions of dollars are given out to small businesses without being paid back with the specific purpose of commercializing innovation for the public benefit. Public benefit does not mean free it means the public having access to newer and better technology deciding for itself whether the price warrants the purchase.

Now it seems that most on here don’t like the idea of the patent system, but it was intentionally developed to promote inovation for the public good. Note that for the public good does not mean free. Whether we like it or not, technology used in highly competitive areas will NOT get developed unless there is limited duration monopolies, ie patent protection. So in the example of NASA just making the patents available to the public for free, be they US citizens or not, while that sounds quite nice, the truth is that NO company will invest money and take on the risk of trying to commercialize the technology without some protection. This is the fundamental basis of our intellectual property system. This is why it was needed and frankly one of the reasons why the US is so much more innovative than other countries.

As to these patents being enforecable either offensively or defensively, I’m not sure why the auction process would make a difference. NASA licenses patents all the time and collects fees in the process. Many of these patents have been held enforceable.

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