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IP Hit or Miss? Armageddon – Science Miss but IP Hit?

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Image - courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Image – courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

One of our readers suggested we take a look at Armageddon. This 1998 action/adventure sci-fi starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck has already been established as a science fail (1,2,3) but how accurate are the IP references made in the movie?

For those readers not familiar with Armageddon, the film revolves around an impending asteroid impact on Earth and a plan to drill deep into the asteroid and detonate a large enough nuclear weapon to split the asteroid into two pieces and thus avoid the end of the world. Bruce Willis plays the character Harry Stamper, the best deep-sea oil driller in the world, who is initially brought in to be an advisor to NASA.

Early on during the character introduction phase of the film, Stamper is picked up off his oil rig and flown to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Here he is asked to help the team develop the drilling techniques they will need to penetrate the asteroid deep enough for the weapon to be effective. NASA scientists, Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) and Ronald Quincy (Jason Isaacs) lead Stamper to a hangar, show him a drilling apparatus and ask if Stamper recognises it. This leads Stamper to retort:

“Yeah, well I should recognise it – it’s my design. What’d you go steal a key to the patent office?”

To which, Truman responds “yeah, basically” and Quincy states “well, technically, patents don’t apply to outer space”.

Assuming that the patent in question has been granted by at least the US Patent and Trademark Office, this raises two IP issues: protecting IP rights in outer space and government use of patented inventions.

IP Rights in Outer Space

As many readers will know, patent law is territorial and national borders do not extend into outer space. So one may be forgiven for assuming that Quincy’s statement holds true. However, United States patent law covers inventions in outer space. 35 US Code § 105 pre-dates the release of Armageddon and states:

“any 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”.

Let’s ignore for the moment that the patented drilling apparatus is being used in an hangar in Houston, Texas. The drilling apparatus will eventually be put to use on a US-controlled space craft and under the provisions of 35 US Code § 105, it will be considered to be within the US, even when in outer space. Therefore, its use would still count as patent infringement.

The UK has no specific law defining patent protection in outer space. Without specific laws, Section 60(5)(e) and (f) of the UK Patents Act 1977 relating to infringement of seafaring vessels could be interpreted to mean that space craft in outer space cannot infringe UK patents.

The European Patent Office does not currently deal with infringement but it will be interesting to see if the Unitary Patent will include provisions for infringement in outer space.

Government Use of Patented Inventions

Ultimately, NASA would have been allowed to use Stamper’s patented drill without his prior consent, regardless of where it was being used. The US government and its authorised contractors are protected from being liable to patent owners for infringement, with basis from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution and further secured by case law.

Provisions under 28 US Code § 1498 allow the patentee to obtain reasonable compensation from the government for use of a patented invention but does not allow the patentee to prevent infringement. However, I imagine that Mr Stamper may have had other things to worry about by the end of the film than seeking royalties for use of his patented drill.

The equivalent UK law is discussed in Section 55 of the UK Patents Act 1977 – Use of patented inventions for services of the Crown.

IP rights aside, the scene in the hangar serves its purpose to establish Stamper as a suitably qualified and experienced person in the field of drilling, with good commercial sense to file for patent protection for his invention. Being in the oil and gas industry, this patent could have been particularly lucrative.

Verdict – IP Miss

It was a close call but whilst NASA were allowed to infringe Stamper’s drilling apparatus patent, the characters demonstrated a lack of intellectual property knowledge to back up why.

Laurence Lai 17 May 2013

This article is part of an occasional series of articles that takes a light-hearted look at IP as it appears in the media (films, TV, news reports etc) as an excuse to talk about different IP topics. A vague rating of “IP hit or miss?” may also be given depending on how well the particular IP concept has been incorporated into the media in question.

Previous “IP  Hit or Miss?” article – Why Tony Stark might want to reconsider Pepper Potts as CEO


1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    An additional issue is the fact that Thorton and Issacs’s characters have brought Stamper in to help them make the machine work. Evidently they were unable to acheive this on the basis of the disclosure of the patent in combination with their common general knowledge, so it sounds like his patent might have been invalid anyway.

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