Ask Dr. SETI ®
Patents: Everyone Into the Pool
by H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director
It is the nature of SETI research to be completely open, and to operate entirely in the public domain. The SETI League, Inc., as a grass-roots endeavor, takes no exception to the the generally accepted policy of scientific openness. Thus, it has surprised some in the scientific community that in August of 2000, I filed a preliminary patent application for key technologies being used in my Array2k design, and assigned to The SETI League all intellectual property rights associated therewith. This move was not without controversy, and in fact I had to prevail upon many on both our Board of Trustees and our Advisory Board to humor me in this pursuit.
Let me emphasize that it is the full intention of The SETI League, Inc. to offer blanket licensing of Array2k technologies, at no fee whatever and without even requiring so much as a formal application process, to all bona-fide nonprofit educational and scientific users, worldwide and on a non-discriminatory basis. Just as other scientific organizations have freely and generously shared their technology with us, so will we continue to make available to our colleagues anything of value which we happen to develop.
Why, then, would I push for a patent? Simply because The SETI League (like most such ventures) is operating on a shoestring. Lacking government or corporate grants, we are dependent upon our members for their modest membership dues and such additional contributions as their individual finances dictate. If there is, in fact, a potential for commercial exploitation of our work, we hope that it will generate sufficient funding to allow our continued existence as a viable educational and scientific organization.
A number of other projects are currently contemplating various antenna array configurations. Teams working on the Square Kilometer Array, Allen Telescope Array, the Ohio State University Argus Telescope, etc. all promise commercial applications as well. To date, none of these projects has sought patent protection. In fact, colleagues have expressed the fear that our patent application could set off a patent war involving self-defense by the others, which would be costly, messy and divisive, and divert effort away from research and into legal bickering. None of us needs or wants this.
On the other hand, consider this alternative scenario. Let us say someone in the scientific community develops technology that has significant commercial implications, but altruistically chooses not to patent it. Some aerospace conglomerate then copies (or parallels) this technology, and does patent it. Now it isn't hard to imagine the commercial enterprise suing the true developer, for patent infringement!
Sadly, the above scenario may not be all that far-fetched. The only protection The SETI League can see is for all of us in the research community to patent, and cross-license, our respective technologies. Instead of a patent war, we should be working toward establishing a patent pool.
Thus, lacking a better idea, I will push for The SETI League continuing to pursue commercialization of its designs as a means of funding its research and development activities, all the while remaining sensitive to its obligation to share technology freely and openly with the world scientific community. Perhaps what we need to establish is an umbrella organization which will own all of our collective patents, granting its member societies full access thereto. The SETI League stands ready to provide leadership in establishing such a framework, should our colleagues so desire.
Meanwhile, I must thank patent and trademark counsel Steven Carver, Esq., who chairs The SETI League's Legal Services Committee, for his pro-bono efforts to protect our intellectual property rights, while ensuring the scientific community appropriate access to our technologies.
Finally, I wish to point out that The SETI League still honors individual freedom. As an individual, I am free to apply for patent protection for whichever of my designs I wish. As an individual, I am free to assign my intellectual property rights to anyone I wish. And as an individual, you are free to disagree.
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this page last updated 28 December 2002
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