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SpaceX Challenges Blue Origin Patents Over Sea-Landing Rocket Tech 75

Posted by Soulskill
from the system-and-method-for-not-quite-slipping-the-surly-bonds-of-earth dept.
speedplane writes: Last week, Elon Musk's SpaceX fired two challenges (PDFs) at Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin over U.S. Patent 8,678,321, entitled "Sea landing of space launch vehicles and associated systems and methods." The patent appears to cover a method of landing a rocket on a floating platform at sea. In their papers, SpaceX says that "by 2009, the earliest possibly priority date listed on the face of the patent, the basic concepts of 'rocket science' were well known and widely understood. The "rocket science" claimed in the '321 patent was, at best, 'old hat[.]'" Blue Origin has approximately three months to file a preliminary response to the challenge. You can review the litigation documents here and here. (Disclosure: I run the website hosting several of the above documents.)
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SpaceX Challenges Blue Origin Patents Over Sea-Landing Rocket Tech

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  • by i kan reed (749298) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @02:48PM (#47809579) Homepage Journal

    I mean, I understand the idea of rewarding people for inventing useful things, but is it really worth all the nonsense actual inventors have to suffer these days?

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      I so wish I had posted a few years ago when I first thought that SpaceX should land on a barge or ship instead of land.
      Boy does this seem to fail the obvious test.

      • by gstoddart (321705)

        I so wish I had posted a few years ago when I first thought that SpaceX should land on a barge or ship instead of land.

        You know, if you can land the craft on land, how is this much different from landing it on a platform?

        I mean, the game Lunar Lander is how old? The idea of using retro-rockets to slow your descent onto where you're landing is literally decades old, and was probably shown in early sci-fi shows.

        I'm having a hard time understanding how this patent could possibly be adding anything new.

        As usua

        • I mean, the game Lunar Lander is how old? The idea of using retro-rockets to slow your descent onto where you're landing is literally decades old, and was probably shown in early sci-fi shows.

          The game "Lunar Lander" is, interestingly, about ten years younger than the ACTUAL lunar lander (game - 1979, Apollo 11 - 1969).

          And yes, it was shown in early scifi films. Not sure if early Flash Gordon serials showed it, but it was certainly in use in scifi by the '50s.

        • by kimvette (919543)

          "Straight physics," prior art, obviousness, all have never prevented a patent from being issues [google.com].

    • by alvinrod (889928) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @03:03PM (#47809713)
      Probably not, but the typical counter argument is that if there's no protections at all the little guys can be immediately squashed by the existing industry titans who can use their existing infrastructure advantages to crush any new-comers who lack any legal protection for their inventions.

      Of course the counter-counter argument is that the patent laws are so bad that this is happening anyway because trolls can threaten anyone with millions of dollars in legal expenses over a patent that's not terribly good (or possibly even relevant to the case at all) which ends up crushing the new-comers anyways.

      There's probably a happy middle-ground, but most people are too firmly in one camp or another to ever try to compromise and the government in general cares so little about the issue that they won't bother to develop a fix, and even if there's a perfectly good system that someone conceives and then proves (by some rigorous method) to be an ideal solution, there will still be someone who complains because the current system suits them better and they can probably buy a Congress critter or three, so good luck there.

      However, the unwritten rule seems to be that the litigation will drag on for so long, that you may as well just knowingly infringe, even if it's a perfectly good and reasonable patent, simply because the opportunity to gain industry position and reach the point where you can throw your own weight around is worth far more than the actual costs your company will actually incur once the legal dust settles. For example, Apple and Samsung are still fighting over phones that have in some cases been off the market for years at this point and it could be several years before each side has exhausted all of their appeals, countersuits, motions to complain (or whatever the actual legal term might be), etc.
      • by rahvin112 (446269) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @03:33PM (#47809995)

        It costs about 3 million dollars to take a patent case to court. No small business with a patent that's being violated can sue the big boys over patents because they can't afford the legal expenses. My uncle ran a business that sold a patented item to the mining business. Because the business was small they contracted with a larger company to produce the product using the small business input materials. The bigger business would routinely produce the patented item using the small business materials and was selling them in direct competition to the small business.

        No matter how loud or how threatening my Uncle could be would intimidate the larger business because the lawsuit would bankrupt the smaller business and they'd just buy them out cheaper than their value (they told him as much when he was trying to stop them). There was literally nothing he could do because the value of the goods though a lot of money to the small business wasn't anywhere near the cost of the suit. The larger business made a point of producing just a small enough number of items for themselves that it would never be enough money to draw a lawyer in on contingency. Because they were pretty much the only company in the US that could produce the items he was screwed either way.

        Like much of the legal system in this country it's become too expensive and too complicated for small businesses to go after larger ones. This applies especially to patents. Patents are not being used by small inventors.

        • This. The north-american justice system is so fucked up that in practice there is no justice at all. North-americans are in practice at your own risk in the market with no protection of justice, where whoever has the most money is who wins per more wrong he is.

          (The legal system is as broken as google translator, the damn thing is crap)
        • by gnupun (752725)
          And how much would your uncle have made if he had no patent on the product and three big companies had copied his IP and were manufacturing and selling the product? The big company here allegedly and brazenly committed a crime because they could get away with it. They could potentially face consequences down the line. Are many companies stupid enough to willingly infringe patents?
          • by Gription (1006467)
            I know a guy that has patents for a wheel centercap that always shows the car's emblem upright. Basically it has a weight and bearings to insure that it doesn't turn with the wheel. Kind of cool item for anal car nuts. He also holds international patents for the same.

            Some time after he started producing center caps for the aftermarket Rolls Royce starts putting the same type of non rotating center caps on their cars. His attorney approached them and tried to pursue getting some type of licensing, damages
            • by gnupun (752725)

              Are you telling me the upright center cap in this rolls royce youtube video is patented by your acquaintance?

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

              • Yup. That is it. He holds U.S. and international patents which they have blatantly ignored and his legal challenge was met with lawyers that basically made it into $ vs $$$$ and $$$$ wins.

                (Told him he should find a high end patent attorney to take the case on contingency. He is so fed up with attorneys that he would rather shoot the next one he sees rather then talk to one more. He says he will never patent another thing.)
        • Patents are still useful for small businesses because it provides protection against someone else coming along and patenting your product after the fact. This is more important than ever now that the US has abandoned the first-to-invent principle to determine patent validity.

        • I've heard this kind of argument on Slashdot, where it is claimed that patents aren't for small inventors or as in your case, that they small inventors do not use them, and attempted to counter it then, that time with examples of small inventors. I believe that it is quite false. I will now engage in some self-plagiarism and list those same inventors again, since their inventions are still among those which capture the mechanically oriented parts of my imagination the most and because I've already committed
          • You completely ignored the crux of the problem: For the small inventor file lawsuits against patent infringement, he must pay. And need to pay a lot, probably more than he will see in life being a small inventor.
      • Of course the counter-counter argument is that the patent laws are so bad that this is happening anyway because trolls can threaten anyone with millions of dollars in legal expenses over a patent that's not terribly good (or possibly even relevant to the case at all) which ends up crushing the new-comers anyways.

        The patent laws aren't necessarily bad. (Although the recent first-to-file rule sure as hell isn't good.) It's that they're not being enforced.

        These people should never have been given a patent. It's so obviously invalid I have to wonder whether the patent examiner was a grade-schooler working in his spare time. That doesn't mean the law is bad, it means the law wasn't followed.

      • We should replace the patent system with a mandatory royalty system. You invent something, everyone can use your discovery but they must pay royalties to you for a fixed time period.
    • Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin has not and never will launch a rocket. Like Amazon, it is a Patent Troll.

      SpaceX is actually doing things in space. Blue Origin is just the money hungry Bezos looking for more money without actually doing anything to deserve it.

    • Patents are supposed to be for inventions, not just "useful things".

      The problems we have been experiencing have not been due to the idea of patents, they are due to deliberate abuse of the patent system, and the relative incompetence of patent examiners today.

      ANY system I am aware of can be abused. That doesn't mean the concept of the system is invalid.

      Just like corporations today have abused their corporate money to lobby Congress and form virtual monopolies and oligopolies. That doesn't mean the
      • 'Patents are supposed to be for inventions, not just "useful things".'

        Quite.

        Patents were originally meant to be a trade - you got protection in exchange for showing how your device worked that may take months or years to reinvent.

        You should never, ever be able to get a patent for being the first to come up with a problem, and doing the obvious solution.

        This is especially the case if that solution took you less time than a full and proper patent search to see if that solution was already patented.

        If that is

        • Yes, I don't disagree. Part of my point was that too many patents are being awarded for things that should never even have been really considered.

          EFF has a "stupid patent of the month" section on their website.
        • Patents were originally meant to be a trade - you got protection in exchange for showing how your device worked that may take months or years to reinvent.

          Ever read the part of the patent that describes how to make the patented thing? I've glanced at some software patents. Although I am at least ordinarily skilled in the art, I would have a very hard time figuring out how to implement them, and in at least one case it would not have worked as described without considerably more innovation than the patent

  • by MAXOMENOS (9802) <maxomai@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @03:00PM (#47809681) Homepage
    Whodathunk?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Does Blue Origin qualify as a patent troll? They're still doing their own R&D with the goal of building their own rockets, aren't they?

      • by MAXOMENOS (9802)
        I don't doubt that Blue Origin, like Bezos's most famous project (Amazon), is constantly engaged in R&D. But like Amazon, it appears that Blue Origin is trying to patent stuff that shouldn't be patented (in this case because of prior art). That's patent troll behavior.
  • Musk vs. Bezos? So many egos...So hard to choose which to loathe slightly less in this fight.

    • Musk. Definitely. At least the manifestations of Musk's ego will (potentially) lead good things. Bezos just seems like he wants his company to be a monopoly in all the things.

    • by Talderas (1212466)

      Musk is pursuing technologies that will, arguably, make our world better.

      Bezos is a profit hound seeking to maximize revenue by driving further consumerism.

  • by Tokolosh (1256448) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @03:18PM (#47809863)
    • Is the "american way". Stealing ideas, patent them and then force everyone to pay to use their "innovations".
    • by Solandri (704621) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @04:16PM (#47810393)
      The USPTO really needs to insist that patents be for an implementation of an idea, not the general concept. That was the problem with the Wright Brothers' patent - it basically covered the concept of moving surfaces as flight controls, even though the Wright Brothers' implementation via wing warping was something nobody else did nor does today. It hindered U.S. development of aircraft enough that by the time WWI came about, the U.S. was technologically behind the rest of the world [century-of-flight.net] partly because of the patent.

      Likewise, if Bezos wants to patent an implementation of landing a rocket at sea, by all means he should be free to do so. But he should not be able to patent the concept of landing a rocket at sea.
      • General idea patients are just horseshit... If musk loses he'll just buy/lease an island and the US will lose out in more money. Lol
      • I've expressed this sentiment as: you should be allowed to patent (non-obvious) solutions, you should never be allowed to patent a problem.

        However, my expression of the issue is poorly defined as the problem/solution boundary is not clear. Is the problem "reusing rocket hardware" and "landing at sea" the solution, or is "reusing rocket hardware which is naturally coming down into the sea" the problem and "guiding it to the landing platform and securing it" the solution?

        You use "concept" and "implementation"

  • by Anonymous Coward

    A patent is a bargain, you teach your secrets in exchange for a limited exclusive use of them.

    This patent teaches next to nothing that wasn't already known in the 50 or 60's.
    It says what to do, but the devil is in the details of how to do it which is not taught.
    To actually do the work and make this work would no doubt require figuring out new stuff which is missing.

    If SpaceX were to do this, the fact that they got patents on the new stuff seems an existence proof

  • The ultimate conspicuous consumption challenge.
  • ...for decades with the Sea Harrier; using thrust to land on an aircraft carrier! First use, from a quick glance: Before Apollo 11 (April 1, 1969) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H... [wikipedia.org] .
  • by DickBreath (207180) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @03:42PM (#47810061) Homepage
    Even if the patent is thrown out, another way that SpaceX can be harmed is by states forcing SpaceX to sell through dealers.
  • A big challenge for water landing will be wind during the descent of the rocket. If the wind is blowing 100 miles an hour for a minute as the rocket is falling, then it's going to be dragged a mile from the ballistic landing point. (When things move quickly through the air, the lift generated by wind is extremely high; bullets move with the wind.) I don't believe that the booster will have the capacity to fly horizontally too far, and it won't be firing at all for the bulk of the descent.

    If the wind could be predicted accurately, it would be easy enough to steer the rocket to the right place -- or move the landing platform to the right place.

    If you're landing back at the launch pad; there will have been a rocket that could have sampled the wind speed just a few minutes previously, so you could have very precise wind speed vs. altitude data.

    • by robot256 (1635039)
      The latest models of the F9R boosters have retractable steering fins in addition to thrusters and engine gimbals for guidance control, and the ability to hover in place and translate to a precise landing spot. I'm sure they will have everything worked out by the time they try to actually land on a sea platform.
      • by Thagg (9904)

        I had forgotten about the gridded fins...you're right, that should provide substantial cross-range capability.

    • by Type44Q (1233630)

      there will have been a rocket that could have sampled the wind speed just a few minutes previously

      If only there were a way to put cameras in orbit, so as to look down upon the planet and spot those turbulent areas with high winds...

    • Changing your landing point is very easy - you just slightly change the attitude of the rocket during its retro burn, changing the horizontal component of the acceleration. Changing your landing point to where you want it to be is harder, but the SpaceX people seem to be making good progress on this. (Except that they just blew up their test vehicle...)

  • by cstacy (534252)

    Bezos "on a computer" http://appft1.uspto.gov/netacg... [uspto.gov]

    Bezos on the ocean [http://mashable.com/2013/03/20/jeff-bezos-nasa-apollo-11-engines/]

    Elon on the ocean http://www.ibtimes.com/spacex-... [ibtimes.com]

    The beast of Tenagra http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1... [wikipedia.org]

    Elon, his sales (sic) unfurled http://www.teslamotors.com/blo... [teslamotors.com]

  • by Rick in China (2934527) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @02:18AM (#47814411)

    If human expansion into space is thwarted by broad patents, I have nothing more than a big fuck you on behalf of humanity for those who sit on given patents.

    Why oh why isn't the patent system getting a massive overhaul: the world has changed ffs.

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