Intellectual Property Rights – the sky is the limit?

On 13-07-2012, in Satellite Navigation, by steve

That Apple and Samsung are at each other’s throats over the Galaxy range of smartphones and tabs is no news. Of course if we look at the details, the situation is nothing short of ridiculous. Basically, Apple had claimed originally that not only did the interface on the Galaxy infringe its patents, but the form of the tab was in fact a direct copy of a sketch they had submitted as part of a patent application many years earlier… Now the latest incarnation of the Galaxy phone will only exist in colors that Apple does not use and will have the corners of the case rounded in a way that does not exist on the iPhone. All this because Samsung got wind of Apple preparing for a patent infringement suite against Samsung based on the form of the Galaxy case.

What does this have to do with aviation you might ask.

Well, one would think that this kind of wrangling happens only in the consumer sphere and in aviation we have more serious players. One would be wrong.

Once upon a time, Europe and the US had gotten together to work out a solution to some problems between GPS and Europe’s upcoming Galileo system. Experts from the US and Europe crafted a signal structure that made Galileo interoperable with GPS while making the services better for the users of either system.

Normally, the matter would have been closed at that point in the happy knowledge that once Galileo is launched, receivers built to the new standard would work with both GPS and the European me-too system. But things took a nasty turn when Ploughshare Innovations, the wholly owned research and development division of the British Ministry of Defense started to go around the US and Europe, laying claim to the intellectual property rights of the new signal structure and in some cases demanding a royalty from receiver manufacturers.

The signal at issue is the new L1C civil signal of GPS and Galileo’s E1 signal for its open service. The signal structure which goes under the name of MBOC (Multiplex Binary Offset Carrier) was designed to provide a workaround for the limitations created by spectrum crowding and to reduce multipath errors.

The result of common US-EU work, nobody in their right mind would have expected that one of the partners would step to the patent office and claim that the solution was after all his alone. But that is exactly what the Brits have done and what is more, agencies like the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) seem to have no problem letting them have their way.

Of course the jury is still out on what will finally happen. The issue is being debated on government level and no doubt patent offices and lawyers will also have their say in the matter. If the patent is granted, everyone from consumers to the US government will have to pay more for their equipment. Worse, even if the application is refused, the damage is done. Who will ever trust such a common group ever again seeing the precedent where one of the partners decided that the outcome of the common work was in fact theirs?

Ever since its inception, the US taxpayers have footed the bill for GPS and when it was released for worldwide free use, there was no outcry saying that they would no longer do so. When Europe came up with all kinds of me-too projects, like EGNOS and Galileo, there was not even talk about free use initially, what is more, they wanted the airspace users to foot almost the total bill for what are essentially superfluous developments. This latest spat only makes things uglier…

Hopefully Apple and Samsung will not take their future clues from Ploughshare Innovation!

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