Which Would You Rather Have: The Planet, Or A Patent?

from the decisions,-decisions dept

One of the more controversial approaches to the already controversial field of climate change is geoengineering, which Wikipedia defines as "deliberate large-scale engineering and manipulation of the planetary environment to combat or counteract anthropogenic changes in atmospheric chemistry."

Some people are concerned that such large-scale interventions might produce large-scale disasters. That makes small-scale experiments exploring the underlying technologies an important first step before taking this route. Unfortunately, it seems that one geoengineering experiment has been called off because of patents:

A field trial for a novel UK geoengineering experiment has been cancelled amid questions about a pre-existing patent application for some of the technology involved.

The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project is a collaboration among several UK universities and Cambridge-based Marshall Aerospace to investigate the possibility of spraying particles into the stratosphere to mitigate global warming. Such particles could mimic the cooling produced by large volcanic eruptions, by reflecting sunlight before it reaches Earth’s surface.
As the article quoted above goes on to explain, the main issue here is a potential conflict of interests:
a patent application that was submitted by Peter Davidson, who runs the UK consulting firm Davidson Technology on the Isle of Man and was an adviser at the workshop that gave rise to the SPICE project, and Hugh Hunt, an engineer at the University of Cambridge, UK, who is one of the SPICE project investigators. The patent is for an "apparatus for transporting and dispersing solid particles into the Earth’s stratosphere" by "balloon, dirigible or airship" technology related to the SPICE field trial.
UK funding bodies require possible conflicts of interest to be declared when applying for grants, whereas here the patent application apparently only came to light a year into the experiment. Part of the project is continuing -- things like climate modelling and analysis -- but the most innovative element, the field trial, has been cancelled.

This episode shows one of the problems with trying to marry "pure" science with commerce, and the tensions that can arise between sharing knowledge freely and trying to make money by restricting access through licensing. It would be regrettable, to say the least, if the exploration of ideas that might play a role in addressing climate change were blocked because of patents.

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  1. identicon
    DogBreath, 24 May 2012 @ 9:03am

    Kind of reminds me of this:

    Boeing Patent Shuts Down AMC-14 Lunar Flyby Salvage Attempt

    Apr 10, 2008

    Attempts to salvage a wayward GEO comsat have come unstuck in the face of institutional disinterest and an aging patent of questionable validity.

    The AMC-14 commercial geostationary satellite was launched in March by a Proton launch vehicle into space just short of its minimum geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

    SES Americom, the world's largest commercial satellite firm, owns the satellite and was to lease capacity on AMC-14 to the Echostar group.

    Following the failed launch, SES Americom looked into how they might salvage the satellite in a manner similar to the Asiasat-3 salvage in 1998.

    However, SpaceDaily has now learned that a plan to salvage AMC-14 was abandoned a week ago when SES gave up in the face of patent issues relating to the lunar flyby process used to bring wayward GEO birds back to GEO Earth orbit.


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

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. Better to let something die on the vine than to try and deal with almost anything involving IP (and yes, Patent Offices are "still" incompetent).

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