Judges Killed a Patent Aimed at Stopping SpaceX's Reusable Rocket Plan

Sorry, Jeff Bezos: Judges ruled you can't patent a plan to land a rocket on a drone boat.

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Sep 2 2015, 3:05pm

Image: Blue Origin

One of the more bizarre patent suits in the commercial spaceflight world is finally over: A team of federal judges has thrown out Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos's attempt to patent a reusable rocket concept that was already being used by Elon Musk's SpaceX.

Besides Amazon, Bezos has been attempting to compete in the commercial spaceflight industry with a company called Blue Origin, which successfully tested a rocket earlier this year.

Part of Blue Origin's plan to become an affordable launch operator is to land the first stage of a rocket on a boat and then reuse that rocket. Blue Origin attempted to patent this technology back in 2010 and won the patent in 2014.

If any of this sounds familiar, it's because that's exactly what Musk's SpaceX has been trying to do for the last couple years, with varying levels of near-success. Musk argued in 2010 and for years since that the concept of landing a rocket on a drone boat has been floating around for quite some time, and, by the time Blue Origin was actually granted the patent, SpaceX was already trying to perfect the technique. Blue Origin hadn't even launched a rocket at the time.

Last week, judges with the US Patent and Trademark Office decided to cancel the patent, meaning anyone is free to attempt to land a rocket on a boat, presuming they have the technology and know-how to do so.

Musk, for his part, has famously decided not to seek any patents with SpaceX (and he open-sourced the patents he's filed with Tesla) specifically because he believes that the Chinese government, undeterred by patent law, will steal proprietary technology as soon as it's described and published in a patent.

"Our primary long-term competition is in China," Musk said in 2012. "If we published patents, it would be farcical, because the Chinese would just use them as a recipe book."

That may be the case, but in forgoing patents, the company has also opened itself up to headaches like the Blue Origin saga. For now though, if you want to land a rocket on a drone boat, you now have the legal go-ahead to try it. Good luck!