UK Drops Patent Efforts on GPS, GNSS Signal Design - Inside GNSS - Global Navigation Satellite Systems Engineering, Policy, and Design

UK Drops Patent Efforts on GPS, GNSS Signal Design

Philip Dunne, UK Defense Minister for Equipment, Support, and Technology. Wikimedia Commons photo

The United States and United Kingdom announced today (January 17, 2013) that the British government would end its efforts to obtain patent or intellectual property (IP) rights related to GPS.

The United States and United Kingdom announced today (January 17, 2013) that the British government would end its efforts to obtain patent or intellectual property (IP) rights related to GPS.

The announcement apparently concludes a contentious effort by a commercial affiliate of the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) to gain patents rights to elements of GNSS signals that would allow them to charge royalties for their use. Had the effort succeeded, it could have placed at risk an agreement between the United States and the European Union to use a common civil signal design — the multiplexed binary offset carrier (MBOC) — at the L1 frequency.

In today’s joint statement, the two governments affirmed their mutual commitment “to ensuring that GPS civil signals will remain perpetually free and openly available for users worldwide.” As part of this effort, the UK is dedicating all government-held patents and patent applications relating to U.S. GPS civil signal designs and their broadcast from GPS and other GNSS to the public domain.

“This understanding is part of a broader shared effort to advance compatibility and interoperability among civil satellite navigation systems and transparency in civil service provision,” the two sides said in the statement. “The U.K. has committed to not pursue or assert IP rights over any aspect of these signals, now or in the future.”

The controversy became public in late 2011 as Ploughshares Innovations, a commercial arm of the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) began contacting GNSS receiver and chipset manufacturers to assert claims on patents pending in the United States, Europe, and other nations. Reflecting the critical response of GNSS industry in the United States and elsewhere to the patent initiative, U.S. officials reacted vigorously to defend the GPS signal rights.

The MBOC signal design emerged from the work of a joint Galileo Signal Task Force and underlies both the Galileo Open Service and the new GPS civil signal (L1C) that will be transmitted beginning with the GPS Block III satellites scheduled for first launch in 2015. The task force teamed European and U.S. experts to develop a new signal enabling GPS and Galileo signals to be more easily used together.

The group was created as part of the Agreement on the Promotion, Provision and use of Galileo and GPS Satellite-based Navigation Systems and Related Applications — a landmark 2004 accord formalizing cooperation on satellite navigation between the United States and more than two dozen European countries, including the United Kingdom.

The two governments now say they have reached a common understanding of intellectual property (IP) rights related to GPS and will work together to address broader GNSS IP issues.

Referring to the agreement reached, British Defense Minister for Equipment, Support, and Technology Phillip Dunne MP (Member of Parliament) said, “I am pleased to welcome this new addition to our already close and wide-ranging space relationship with the United States. Our joint approach to providing this IP free to end users underpins the central role GPS plays not just in defense operations but also in wider civil applications and civil resilience.”

As for the cooperative dialog between the two nations that led to this agreement, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones said, "Our discussions on this subject have highlighted our shared interest in deepening our technical partnership and addressing complex issues together. I am especially pleased that we have developed an approach to our technical partnership that will help our private sectors continue to innovate and develop new applications that bring benefit to the people of both countries."

According to the joint statement, the two nations’ governments will now engage in follow-on discussions to “ensure that the policy and approaches of our two governments are well-coordinated, and to provide a basis for even deeper U.S.-UK space cooperation across a range of civil and defense-related challenges and opportunities.”