BRUSSELS — The European Commission is pressuring France and Britain to surrender patents they have secured relating to the Galileo satellite navigation system to avoid a chilling effect on Galileo receiver builders now worried about having to pay royalty or licensing fees, European government officials said.
Officials involved said they hoped to avoid a court case in which patents legally obtained by the British Ministry of Defence and the French space agency, CNES, at the European Patent Office would be challenged by the commission, which owns the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing system.
Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani, in a Jan. 28 address to a space policy conference at the commission’s headquarters here, was adamant that his office “will not let issues like patents stand in the way of the use of Galileo. We are working on a solution.”
Government officials said Tajani was referring to patents held by the French and British goverments, which, if unchallenged, could allow these governments and the individuals associated with the patents to complicate what the commission hopes will be the rapid, royalty-free spread of Galileo uses.
“We have already heard concerns of some manufacturers asking about their future liability,” one commission official said. “It’s more the unknown than anything else that concerns them. This is the time we need these receiver builders to be working full-speed ahead to be ready when Galileo is operational. The concern is that the patent issue will give them pause.”
French and British government officials said they understood the commission’s concerns and have no intention of putting sand in the gears of Galileo’s deployment.
Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of CNES, nonetheless said resolving the issue is not as easy as signing a single document turning over the patents to the commission for open-source use. The legal route ending up with just that result — which he said is France’s intention — will take some time to navigate.
“We have absolutely no intention of causing problems for Galileo’s deployment,” Le Gall said in a Jan. 30 interview. “Frankly, this is not going to be a problem for Galileo and I don’t think [receiver] manufacturers should be concerned about this.”
David Willetts, Britain’s minister for science and universities, who has principal responsibility for space affairs but did not presume to speak for the Ministry of Defence, agreed with Le Gall. “This is going to be worked out, and part of it has to do with financial issues” for the individuals who sought the patents, Willetts said in a Jan. 29 interview.
Willetts said that while he could not speculate on when a resolution would arrive or what its exact form would be, there is little chance that it will deter those interested in developing Galileo applications.
The commission has agreed to spend 6.3 billion euros ($8.5 billion) on Galileo between 2014 and 2020.
With Galileo’s full development now funded, the commission is focusing on selling the service to other European government organizations, and to governments the world over.
Willetts said Galileo should be mandated — but currently is not — in commission regulations for high-speed rail networks and Europe’s next-generation automobile emergency service system.
Diego Canga Fano, Tajani’s head of cabinet, told the conference Jan. 29 that Tajani now routinely gives his counterparts in other regions of the world little Galileo satellite models instead of the usual pens and other knickknacks that fall within the permitted gift-giving limits of the commission.
Canga said the satellites never fail to elicit interest that, the commission hopes, will lead to Galileo’s adoption in many places in the world that, like Europe, want an alternative to the U.S. GPS system.
The commission is also still unclear on who will have what kind of access to Galileo’s Public Regulated Service (PRS), which is limited to government users and is the Galileo equivalent to the GPS military M-code.
The U.S. Defense Department is among those that have expressed interest in PRS. A commission official said the commission is still waiting for a clear directive from its member governments on the issue. Many of these governments are members of the NATO alliance and, as such, have access to the M-code.
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