Patenting Military Technology – Is it possible?
A patent bestows a temporary and local ownership of an invention for the purpose of production, use, import-export and trade. The goal of patenting is mainly to encourage technological advances and to motivate people to publish their knowledge, which without exclusive rights they would not be bothered to develop or to make known.
Military technology, because national security interests are at stake, are given enormous funds in order to compete with rival states. An interesting example is the early development of digital photography for military use, which happened simultaneously in the United States and the Soviet Union. The difficulty of returning canisters of films taken by spy satellites when these went off course led to this development. This invention was kept as a military secret by both sides of the Cold War during the 1960′s.
As mentioned, the usual stipulation for reproducibility does not hold for military secrets, since countries that have invested in their technology have no interests that “a person skilled in the same technological area” from another country “be able to make and use it.” In many countries laws exist to limit patent registration on military and nuclear secrets. In Israel, for example, the Minister of Defense Is authorized to instruct the patent registrar to avoid or delay taking action on patent applications, to limit publication or even to requisition that knowledge for the use of the state.
The situation is different for private individuals and commercial bodies (Elbit Systems for example) and even government-owned companies (such as Rafael) who work to develop and manufacture military technology and armament. When profits are involved, commercial interests override security interests, and therefore patents are sought for marketing the product to as many states as possible.
It is important to keep in mind that there are restrictions on the rights of residents to apply for patents for military technology abroad without prior approval from a security organization (see the article “Homeland Security” from Technologies, 2010).
In Israel, for example, the considerations that come into play in patent restriction by the Minister of Security are first and foremost whether the invention is a security risk, then whether the technology is strictly military in nature or has other civilian applications. Take for example the gas mask described in a patent for a filtration patent. In the patent application, mention was made of industrial painting and of factories that use toxic materials, and therefore the patent was not classified as a military invention.
An application of technological knowledge from one field in a new field constitutes a patentable idea in most countries. We therefore come across patents in various areas that are essentially applications of military technology in a civilian field:
- The classic Israeli example is that of Dr. Gabriel Idan and Dr. Gabriel Miron, graduates of Rafael who founded GivenImaging. The two men harnessed military rocket technology to a medical application, and developed the PillCam—the pill that makes possible the non-invasive endoscopic exam.
- Nuclear technology developed in the 1940′s to wreak enormous destruction is today used in nuclear reactors to produce “clean” energy as well as in nuclear medicine to diagnose human diseases.
- GPS (Global Positioning System) was also developed for military uses in the 1970′s by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to enable them to accurately navigate nuclear war-head missiles.
In light of the great number of engineers and scientists and the intense security efforts in Israel, we predict that new developments will continue to arise from military technology, directly or indirectly. It is worthwhile consulting a licensed patent agent to consider patenting as a way of protecting the commercial potential of military and civilian applications.
Ph.D. Yaron Hefets, Scientific adviser and patent attorney at Gold Patents and Financial Services.
Daphne Levy, patent attorney intern (2011) at Gold Patents and Financial Services.
Published : Israel Technologies, January 2011.