I am wondering if NASA could be financially self-sufficient if they kept all revenues from patents of technologies they have developed since the Apollo program.

To answer this, I would like to compare NASA annual budget with potential revenues from patents. But while it is easy to find NASA annual budget (wikipedia), it is hard to find any statistics about revenues.

Are there any data available that address this? Also, what happens to the patents?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It would be helpful if you could supply a link for Somewhere I read. Maybe that shows more than just opinions. $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Mar 5 '18 at 12:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Patents from the Apollo-program era would be long-expired. Are you asking about some kind of hypothetical patent system in which patents never expire? $\endgroup$ – Nat Mar 5 '18 at 12:41
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ According to NASA's patent website, they do charge fees for their patents. $\endgroup$ – Nat Mar 5 '18 at 12:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Nat I think the point is that the patent revenues do not go back into NASA's budget. They go into the federal coffers, and the budget is established separately by the WH and Congress. The claim in the question is whether their patent revenues would be sufficient to meet their budget needs. $\endgroup$ – Barmar Mar 5 '18 at 16:22
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Another problem with this question is that it's hard to define how much money NASA needs. Almost everything they do is elective, so they decide how many and which projects they undertake based on their budget. If the patent revenue were enough for one mission/year, they could make themselves self-sufficient just by only running that one mission. $\endgroup$ – Barmar Mar 5 '18 at 16:25

The question how much revenue might arise from a patent isn't something that can generally be proved or disproved (except sometimes in retrospect).

Bear in mind, though, that the Apollo program was from the 1960s, and the term of patents (in the United States) used to be 17 years (from issue-date) (and is now 20 years from application-date) -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Term_of_patent .

Therefore, any patents from that era are now expired and the technology they describe is public-domain.

As for patents from 'future programs', their contingent existence and value must be speculative -- and thus, not a basis that could be relied on to fund a large and expensive organization.

[edit -- answering the modification to the question:] The answer doesn't get any more definite by including patents supposedly arising in the interval between the Apollo program and now. Patents don't arise automatically, you can't arrange them retrospectively, they have to be applied for while the subject is still new, generally not yet publicly disclosed. So the possible 'interval' patents still involve 'might have beens', equally speculative and unreliable. Organizations, especially non-profits, don't survive on patents alone, patents can succeed best by supporting a business with a selling product. Obviously that's not what NASA is about.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer, I rephrased the future part (I didn't mean future from now, but future from Apollo. Which is past from now). The retrospect point of view is exactly what I am curious about. $\endgroup$ – Adam Trhon Mar 5 '18 at 10:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Even if most of its patents have expired, do we know how much money they collectively brought in relative to NASA's 60 year cumulative budget? While we can't assume NASA wouldn't have spent the money if it had more upfront, it still would be interesting to know and is the logical extension to the original question. $\endgroup$ – CircleSquared Mar 5 '18 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ @CircleSquared I don't know NASA's accounts or whether they declare patent income, are the accounts even kept from that far back? Also bear in mind that if any patents name NASA inventors that doesn't automatically mean NASA gets the revenue (if any). There can be outsourcing research agreements where the partner lets the public organization off some of the cost, in return for rights. Among reasons for such a 'gamble': to legally simplify other prospective commercial relationships (e.g. prospectively assuring 'deblocking' without needing slow and expensive enquiry) . $\endgroup$ – terry-s Mar 5 '18 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ @terry-s Perhaps I wasn't clear. I wasn't suggesting NASA collects patent income. The premise of this question is that they're not collecting patent income. The other unstated premise of the question is that we know the total revenue generated (thus far) by all the patents ever produced as a direct result of NASA. That means we should be able to take this number and compare it to NASA's cumulative budget (which is public) and see which sum is larger. $\endgroup$ – CircleSquared Mar 5 '18 at 12:14
  • $\begingroup$ As I said before, even if total patent revenue truly is larger than what NASA has spent over its nearly 60 years, that doesn't mean the patents would've provided enough income for that time. However, it's the closest we can get to answering the question of if NASA could have been supported by patent revenues. $\endgroup$ – CircleSquared Mar 5 '18 at 12:16

This is actually built on a false premise. NASA can, and does, charge for patent usage. See this page for what it takes to get a NASA patent license. Note this:

including higher royalties

Or this one:

NASA will collect a standard net royalty fee

This shows the NASA process for managing patents. They actually will pay the inventor a portion of the proceeds, next to the agency that released it, and finally, if it makes enough money, a portion to the treasury.

Note that NASA regularly issues patents royalty free for use in NASA missions. It seems they have also freed patents for uses that will ultimately save them money, such as giving some to SpaceX and Blue Origins.

NASA estimates that it's patents have provided a total revenue of \$5.1 billion to the licensees of such patents over a decade. That is only a very small part of NASA's budget, and furthermore, they probably only receive a small percentage of that. If they receive 10% (Which is high for a licensee of a patent), that still is only \$500 million over 10 years, not nearly enough to pay for NASA. It seems very unlikely that the 5% threshold has been reached to pay patents back to the Treasury, meaning that NASA is barely able to profit from any of its patents, excluding the R&D costs. Including those, it is likely losing money from patents. That is okay, as the mission is to spur innovation, not make a profit.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You say that the premise is flawed but that NASA "then give[s] the money to the treasury." But that is the premise! The question is asking if NASA would be self sufficient if it kept the patent revenues for itself, instead of paying them into central government funds. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Mar 5 '18 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ The issue is, there is no evidence they have been paying in to the central government funds. But I'll see if I can find some better evidence of such. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Mar 5 '18 at 15:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "there is no evidence they have been paying in to the central government funds" But you just said they give money to the treasury. $\endgroup$ – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 5 '18 at 15:13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I realized as I was improving this that I missed an important fact. They only give to the treasury if more that 5% of the budget is received in patent licensing fees, excluding that given as a bonus to the inventor. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Mar 5 '18 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I agree with this answer and with PearsonArtPhoto 's comments. The smallness, relative to NASA's whole budget, of the revenues from even the active patent program discussed here, only confirms how it would just not be feasible for a non-profit to subsist on patents alone. $\endgroup$ – terry-s Mar 5 '18 at 17:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.