SpaceX V. Blue Origin Patent Challenge Steams Ahead

SpaceX has received what appears to be good news in its challenge of Blue Origin’s patent for a landing a launch vehicle first stage on a barge. The challenge came in the form of an Inter Partes review, a proceeding in which a petitioner can ask for all or parts of a patent to be invalided for a limited number of specified reasons. The most obvious of those is prior art, which holds that the original patent isn’t valid because it incorporated knowledge which was already in the public domain.

An Inter Partes review does not invalidate the the patent per se, it merely establishes that there is sufficient grounds to conclude the patent could be invalidated, thereby setting the stage for a hearing in which both sides can present their arguments and the lawyers can keep the time clocks running.

In this case, there were two findings, which led to a bit if initial confusing regarding what the court actually meant. As it turns out, the court granted a review on items 1-13, but denied one for items 14 and 15. It is the former which is important, as those were the counts which described the barge landing process itself. The sections for which a review was denied covered the grossly generic descriptions for starting and stopping the rocket engines as part of the process. In that light it could be seen as more of a rebuke of the original patent than the SpaceX complaint.


The bottom line here is that SpaceX will continue to attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage on its Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship, and its lawyers will continue going to court in an effort to throw the entire patent out.  With the next launch and recovery effort scheduled for April, SpaceX may very well have achieved a first landing before the case goes further.

In the long term, SpaceX is hoping to avoid the necessity of landing on a seagoing platform for most launches as it returns its stage to solid ground instead, beginning with its recently leased landing facility at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-13.  It is worth. Even if SpaceX achieves both an ASDS return and permission to proceed to landings at the Cape sooner than expected, there is still quite a bit at stake in the legal fight over ocean landings. As the company  moves into the era of the triple core Falcon Heavy, it will face the question of whether or not to recover the center “sustainer” core on missions which take it beyond the range of a ground recovery.  While there has been some indication that those cores would simply be made expendable, the lack of legal impediment to recovery and the plain economics of not throwing away a booster when they already own a landing platform could be compelling.


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1 Comment on "SpaceX V. Blue Origin Patent Challenge Steams Ahead"

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  1. At this point, it might serve Blue Origin to settle the suit. If they could reap a small royalty while dropping the legal defense fees in the process, and still maintain ownership of a valid patent, they would come out ahead in the long run.

    The question is whether SpaceX would be at all amenable to that, given that the decision here is so strongly in their favor.

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