Intellectual Property in Space

Intellectual Property in Space

When we think of space, we mostly think of rockets and little green men. We don’t necessarily think about data that’s being collected and how that affects our lives, here, on Earth. Metis Partners’ Lucy McCalister tells us a little about the intellectual property of earth observation.

Our society is often much more interested in huge technological advances – in going bigger, faster, and further into space; whenever a huge leap is taken, for example the inflatable space elevator, it is all over the news.

Earth Observation (EO), which is the gathering of information about planet Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems via remote sensing technologies, has commercial applications in many industries – from predicting traffic jams to tracking wildlife trends and finding illegal opium poppy crops.

In the first of our industry reports as part of our Intellectual Property League Table, we’ll be looking at the application and Intellectual Property (IP) behind EO. We’ll also be putting the spotlight on IP100 entrant Astrosat – an award-winning Musselburgh-based SME which specialise in EO analysis.  

Firstly we must examine the ways in which EO can be legally commercialised by companies.  Determining exactly which laws apply to EO data, and therefore how it might be commercially exploited, varies from country to country.

A number of EU Directives need to be taken into consideration, including the Database Directive and the Data Protection Directive, in addition to various international treatises and local jurisdictions. With such a number of different legal instruments at play, SMEs should ensure full compliance before utilising EO data.

Helpfully, The Satellite Applications Catapult, has joined with the UK Space Agency to develop a ‘Data Hub’. This will be freely accessible to companies throughout the UK and will simplify the process of identifying where satellite data can be obtained from and the purposes for which it can be used.   

While EO data doesn’t provide valuable insights in its raw form, there are opportunities for individual companies to use, analyse, and commercialise it using their own technology. Many initiatives have licensed-out their data for this purpose, including the US government, the Group on Earth Observation, and many more government launched EO missions.

China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellites (CBERS) have gone even further; their data can be received by authorised ground stations with no restrictions to their distribution or use. Much of NASA and ESA’s data is available free of charge online or by request. Individual operators, such as Astrosat, can access data from the full range of satellites, both government run and from big companies such as Airbus.

Thus the value and IP behind EO comes primarily from its processing, analysis, and presentation. The fact that this is recognised by large companies and government initiatives allows small businesses and start-ups to benefit from satellite missions that they would not be able to fund themselves, therefore promoting the innovation necessary for the continuation and growth of the space industry.

Astrosat are dedicated to using data collected from space to solve problems on earth. “Pick an industry, and satellite data is applicable to it,” says Steve Lee, Astrosat’s CEP. “We can identify the best place to position tidal and wave resources for the offshore renewables sector; we can tell the fish farming industry the best places to find a flow of clean water – by definition, that makes our market global.

We can track back oil spills to the culprit; we can inform transport agencies before the event if there is going to be a landslide which will block their road or rail network, because we have access to virtually every radar satellite up there.”

Astrosat’s first project, thermCERT, uses data from EO in combination with their own software to detect heat leakage from houses, which can be used to reduce thermal waste and carbon emissions. They are also working on identifying erosion, landslides, and tectonic plate movement, with eXude – a flood monitoring programme – winning several awards in late 2015.

The value of Astrosat’s IP lies in its innovative software and analysis of EO data, but they benefit from the collaborative philosophy behind the space industry. Cooperation between industry, government and academia has become common, as can be seen from the UK government’s new space policy and from NASA who licensed out over 1,200 patents to tech start-ups for no up-front fee.

However, not all data collected in space has been approached with the same collaborative attitude. With the increase in private companies launching expeditions, photographs taken in space are a controversial issue.

Andrew Rush – US patent attorney who discusses IP issues in his blog, IPinSpace – was asked to comment on this issue. Rush argues that images taken on a private enterprise, for example, by SpaceX are not in the public domain, even if the project was funded by the public; only images created by government agencies such as NASA can legally be used for commercial gain.

However, Paul Van den Bulck – a Belgian IP lawyer – states that copyright refers to works of the mind, and therefore automatic photographs taken by satellites could be seen as questionable at best. Whether copyright lawsuits ensue from increased private companies in space remains to be seen.

While data collected through Earth Observation may not necessarily be protected under copyright, the analytics performed using this data can lead to the development of amazing software and technological advances which are protected under IP law in various ways – most obviously database and software protection instruments.

The most interesting element of EO, however, is the collaboration between the government and industry, between big tech companies like Airbus and SMEs. The sharing of EO data does not stop companies having a competitive advantage or slow innovation; instead it allows companies like Astrosat to start a business at their kitchen table, to analyse the data without big budgets or a way of collecting the data on their own.

The most innovative steps in the space industry don’t just take place on Mars; they happen a bit closer to home.

You can apply to be part of the Clydesdale and Yorkshire Banks IP100 by clicking here.

If you have any questions about the process, just email Tibbie McIntyre.