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blog 31 Jan 2019

Spin-off companies as a result of the US and Soviet space race

Patents
The 20th of July 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. This part of our series related to the moon landing is about how the space race led to spin-off companies in the US and in the Soviet Union.

The Sputnik space programme was wildly successful, with the Soviet Union being the first to launch a satellite into orbit on 4 October 1957 and the first to launch a living animal  into space in on 3 November 1957. In the space race between the US and the USSR many new technologies were developed. Some of these were patented in the US and led to spin-off companies, with the technology eventually becoming available to consumers and other companies.

In comparison, Soviet patents from the same era are rare. The USSR was reluctant to grant patents to individuals, presumably because a patent provides a temporary monopoly for an invention to an inventor or company, rather than to the state.

The USSR was reluctant to grant patents to individuals, presumably because a patent provides a temporary monopoly for an invention to an inventor or company, rather than to the state.

Instead of patents, the USSR issued inventor’s certificates (описание изобретения к авторскому свидетельству) in which an inventor was legally recognized but which kept the state in control over how and whether the invention would be exploited. An example of such an inventor’s certificate is SU149892 for a device for stabilizing flight of a space ship or air craft, which was awarded in 1961 to a Soviet scientist. This certificate describes a device for facilitating landing of the Soviet version of the space-shuttle. Though the invention apparently worked well, there is no indication that it was commercialized or developed further in the Soviet Union outside of the space programme, e.g. to stabilize flight of regular air craft.

In the US, patents provided spin-off companies with a temporary monopoly, allowing them gain traction and bring new products to the market. Because the extent of the monopoly had to be clearly defined, the spin-off companies had an interest to go into some detail in their patent applications on how their inventions worked. The Soviet inventor’s certificates did not significantly aid formation of spin-off companies, which may explain why the description of the inventions in the certificates is generally much less detailed than in the patents. Inventor’s certificates were abolished in 1990 and the Russian Patent Law provides patent similar to that of most other countries since 1992.

If you want to browse through US patents or Soviet inventor’s certificates, you can visit: https://worldwide.espacenet.com/advancedSearch, and enter the publication number, e.g. “SU149892” in the appropriate field. A machine translation can be generated by clicking on “Description” and subsequently on “Patent translate”.

 

This blog post is part of a series of 'Man on the Moon' articles to honour the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.