ESA Urged To Preserve Industry’s Intellectual Property Rights

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PARIS — European government and industry officials on May 29 attempted to find common ground on issues including how to reduce Europe’s dependence on U.S. electronics and other subsystems and how to modify policies on space intellectual property rights (IPR) without damaging industrial competitiveness.

Meeting in Noordwijk, Netherlands, at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) owned by the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA), government and industry officials discussed measures they hope to propose to a conference of ESA ministers in November.

The May 29 meeting, called the ESA-Industry Consultation, ended a yearlong series of workshops during which ESA sought ideas from industry on how the agency could stimulate Europe’s space industry competitiveness in the context of government budgets that are likely to remain flat at best.

Most of the topics involved industry requests for more support from their government customers.

The exception was IPR. Some 10 years ago ESA changed its IPR policy so that industry, not ESA, owns the intellectual property coming from programs that are 100 percent ESA-funded.

Not surprisingly, industry officials asked ESA not to touch this policy.

But individual ESA member governments have expressed concerns that technology they financed might be used, free of charge, by non-European companies in the event of a merger or acquisition, or by the simple transfer of the technology from a European company to a non-European supplier or customer.

“This is a unique case,” said Jorge Lomba, a member of the Spanish delegation to ESA and the current president of ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee, which is the agency’s check-writing body. “Normally the one who invests takes the IPR. It’s not frequent that you invest 100 percent in something and you don’t get any IPR. This [policy] was made for the benefit of industry. The idea now is not to put limitations on this, but to preserve the motivations of member states to keep investing.”

Lomba said the problem, as expressed by at least some ESA governments, is not limited to exports outside of Europe of ESA-created IPR. Certain ESA governments resent the fact that IPR developed with their financing is given away to the industry of another ESA member.

Giuseppe Morsillo, ESA’s director of policies, planning and control, said the agency could act to prevent the transfer of ESA-generated IPR to a non-European entity, for example if the European company were being purchased.

But the agency is prohibited from intervening if the transaction involves two members of the 27-nation European Union, as are almost all ESA members.

Maintaining the competitiveness of Europe’s space industry was one of the major topics of the yearlong consultation. Unlike the space industries of the United States, Russia, India and China, Europe’s space sector cannot survive on government contracts alone.

Preserving competitiveness on global markets is thus a matter of strategic interest for European governments. Without commercial success, their domestic industrial base would be unable to meet the demand for government space systems.

How to preserve competitiveness and reduce Europe’s dependence on U.S. and other suppliers of space components is a perennial topic in ESA-industry meetings.

Morsillo said only about 2 percent of ESA’s total business goes to non-European contractors, and much of this is in the form of Russian launch vehicles that provide significant value to ESA.

Alberto Tobias, head of the systems, software and technology department in ESA’s Directorate of Technical and Quality Management, said he doubted whether the agency has ever fully calculated the full measure of non-European participation in ESA programs.

“We might not know what is inside the equipment,” Tobias said, referring to electronics subsystems in general. “We could have an excellent piece of equipment and 60 percent of it [comes from] the United States.”

Tobias said ESA was ready to invest around 12 million euros ($16 million) per year to promote made-in-Europe electronics as part of the agency’s European Component Initiative. But he said the agency must be certain it selects investments that really assist industry’s global competitiveness and are not technology one-offs.

“We don’t want to do this just for fun, or just because we want to have more FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays] than the Americans,” Tobias said. “It must be because we really need to have the FPGAs.”

Industry officials said testing components in orbit, perhaps as hosted payloads aboard ESA or other European government satellites whose missions would not be compromised if the hosted payload failed, is something ESA should pursue.

Astrium Satellites Chief Executive Evert Dudok, speaking as president of Europe’s Eurospace space industry group, said a wide adoption of hosted payloads aboard European government satellites also could reduce the risk to future ESA programs of untested technology.

Dudok said European industry is willing to assume more risks in ESA programs if it can identify and mitigate the technology risks. This may not always be possible in push-the-envelope science missions, but in these cases ESA and industry could treat the untested technology separately in contract negotiations.

Franco Ongaro, head of the ESTEC facility and ESA’s director of technical and quality management, said removing technology risk through in-orbit demonstrations of components is a good idea, but creates its own problems.

“Unfortunately, some of our most spectacular failures have been tied to the reuse of previously qualified hardware,” Ongaro said.