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INVENTIONS OUT OF THIS WORLD: PATENT PROTECTION IN OUTER SPACE

Posted in Development & Commercialization of Technology, Intellectual Property, Patent Counseling & Strategies, Patent Prosecution

Outer space exploration has been expanding.  For instance, since 1998, the International Space Station has served as a platform for scientific research and discoveries in space within modules that are operated by the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada[1].  Moreover, efforts are underway to build spacecraft that can transport astronauts on deep space missions to Mars and beyond[2].

The aforementioned efforts require the use of many innovative technologies and products in outer space.  Therefore, an issue that arises is how to protect inventions that may be exploited in outer space (i.e., space-related inventions).  Based on numerous national laws and international agreements, a recommended route is to seek patent protection for space-related inventions in countries and regions that have registered space objects (e.g., space station modules, space shuttles, or spacecraft).  Such countries and regions primarily include: (1) Canada; (2) China; (3) Europe; (4) Japan; (5) Russia; and (6) the United States[3].

According to international agreements and national laws, the country in which a space object is registered retains control and jurisdiction over that space object, including patent jurisdiction[4].  For instance, an international agreement pertaining to the use of the International Space Station indicated that patent jurisdiction over an activity that occurs in or on an International Space Station module is deemed to have occurred in the territory of the country in which the space station module is registered[5].  Likewise, according to U.S. patent laws, “[a]ny invention made, used or sold in outer space on a space object or component thereof under the jurisdiction or control of the United States shall be considered to be made, used or sold within the United States.”[6]

Accordingly, the United States, Russia, Canada, and Japan would each have exclusive patent jurisdiction over activities conducted in their respective space station modules on the International Space Station.  Likewise, a European country or court may have patent jurisdiction over activities conducted in an International Space Station module that is registered to the European Space Agency.  Similarly, China may have patent jurisdiction over activities conducted in a Chinese spacecraft.

In summary, strategies for the protection of inventions that could be exploited in outer space are dictated by a set of complex national laws and international agreements.  A broad interpretation of the aforementioned laws and agreements indicates that the attainment of patents in countries that have registered space objects could help maximize the protection of such space-related inventions.

[1] See NASA’s website entitled “Research & Technology on the Space Station.”  Also see NASA’s website entitled International Cooperation.”
[2] See NASA’s website entitled “NASA’s Journey to Mars.”
[3] See United Nations’ Register of Objects Launched into Outer Space.
[4] See Article VIII of United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty (signed on December 19, 1966).  Also see World Intellectual Property Organization’s website entitled “Patent Expert Issues: Inventions in Space.”  Also see United Nations’  Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space  (entered into force on 15 September 1976).  Also see 35 U.S.C. 105 (a).
[5] See Article 21 (Paragraph 2) of the Agreement Among the Government of Canada, Governments of the Member States of the European Space Agency, the Government of Japan, the Government of the Russian Federation, and the Government of the United States of America Concerning Cooperation on the Civil International Space Station (Signed on January 28, 1998).
[6] See 35 U.S.C. 105 (a).