Few people give a second thought to their toilet, a sign that the problem of disposing of our bodily waste is, for the most part, solved. It’s a fool who says that anything has been perfected and cannot be improved upon, but I nonetheless think it’s safe to say we’ve reached a comfortable point in the history of lavatories, and have come a long way from the days of yonder when throwing chamber pots out of the window was the norm.
Even fewer people, I think it is safe to say, have stopped and thought about how one would make a toilet for use in space. Again, however, this is a problem that was solved around half a century ago (when I put it that way, spaceflight seems amazingly old…) by the Americans and the Soviets, though not before Neil Armstrong and Co. had to put up with little more than plastic bags (96 of which they left on the moon!) As to whether the problem of spending a penny in space has been satisfactorily solved, you’ll have to ask Helen Sharman or Tim Peak…
However, NASA is now asking the People of the World to take the cutting edge of toilets (forgive the phrase) one step further with their “Lunar Loo Challenge”, which launched last week. In doing so, NASA have offered a total of $35,000 in prize money for designs for a toilet that can work both in the microgravity of space as well as the low, but not insignificant, gravity of the lunar surface (which I’m sure you all know to be about a sixth of that on Earth).
Challenges such as this have frequently been used by governments and organisations as a means of incentivising research. Indeed, many of the technologies we now consider ubiquitous – including canned food and margarine (coincidentally, both invented by Frenchmen under the rule of a Napoleon) as well as accurate clocks – were the result of such challenges. NASA will no doubt be hoping that their challenge, along with the promise of a hefty sum of cash, will give some bright spark just the nudge they need to produce an innovative lunar loo.
Of course, innovation is the bread and butter of the patent world. In order to commercialise their new designs, entrants to the competition may well look to patent their potties. The applicability of patents in space is somewhat complicated, as I discussed in my previous blog. However, a US patent would at least cover the use of the toilet aboard any US spaceships or moon bases (the situation with Russian or Chinese patents and spaceships, for example, is less clear). Still, NASA is American, so all good there.
Well, almost. Unsurprisingly for a competition of this kind, the rules state that the winner must agree to grant NASA a free licence for any intellectual property relating to their prize privy. Nevertheless, national space programs are no longer the only runners in the New Space Race. A host of private spaceflight companies now exist, and while few of them at the moment require a toilet capable of working both in zero gravity and lunar gravity, that may change in the not-too-distant future. SpaceX, for example, (still) maintain their goal of landing humans on Mars by 2024. Achieving this goal may seem unlikely at the moment, but, given the 20 year lifetime of a patent, an application filed today would not expire until 2040. Now that feels more like The Future, with humans on Mars and all. Long term licensing opportunities for a lunar loo (assuming it would also work in the low Martian gravity) look promising, especially if it is difficult to design around the patent.
Looking closer to home, innovators of terrestrial toilets have long turned to the patent system to protect their ideas. And while the patent system may not have necessarily been responsible for this innovation (I suspect they had other motivations for improving loos back in the 18th century…), it no doubt allowed people to reap the just rewards for making people’s lives that bit more pleasant. Indeed, one of the earliest patents, British patent no. 814, went to Alexander Cumming in 1775 for the invention of the S-bend – a nifty piece of piping which prevents unpleasant odours from escaping through the toilet from the sewers below. The aptly named British industrialist Thomas Crapper held no less than 9 patents, including one for improving on Cumming’s S-bend with his U-bend.
It would seem, then, that the hopeful entrants to NASA’s challenge are following in the footsteps of many illustrious inventors, and it will no doubt be interesting to see what creative solutions to NASA’s conundrum they come up with. And while there is still a question as to whether patents in most jurisdictions other than the US would extend to cover actions on board a spaceship, they would still cover the manufacture or importation of the patented product here on terra firma. This could still provide a good level of protection, and hence licensing opportunities, around the world in countries seeking to be at the forefront of interplanetary travel. While the first place prize of $25,000 is the immediate reward that most entrants no doubt have their eyes on, there is likely the potential for much greater benefit in the long term if the inventors have the foresight to patent their inventions.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.