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Some NASA patents make reference to Public Law 96-517, using wording like this:

The invention described herein was made in the performance of work under a NASA contract, and is subject to the provisions of Public Law 96-517 (35 USC 202) under which the inventors were granted a request to retain title.

(Source: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20080012292)

What does this mean in practical terms? Law 96-517 appears to be part of something coloquially called the "Bayh-Dole Act", the contents of which seems to refer to being made in the spirit of fostering free enterprise:

It is the policy and objective of the Congress to use the patent system to promote the utilization of inventions arising from federally supported research or development; to encourage maximum participation of small business firms in federally supported research and development efforts; to promote collaboration between commercial concerns and nonprofit organizations, including universities; to ensure that inventions made by nonprofit organizations and small business firms are used in a manner to promote free competition and enterprise without unduly encumbering future research and discovery; to promote the commercialization and public availability of inventions made in the United States by United States industry and labor; to ensure that the Government obtains sufficient rights in federally supported inventions to meet the needs of the Government and protect the public against nonuse or unreasonable use of inventions; and to minimize the costs of administering policies in this area.

This very long sentence seems to loosely imply that small business, not-for-profits and educational institutions will be able to utilise the inventions described in these patents, but I'm only guessing. I'm also interested in what this means for residents, businesses and institutions operating outside of the United States.

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There's an overview of Bayh-Dole here. Here's what I understand from that.

So NASA apparently contracted with a company called Voicecraft to do some work, and in the course of that work, Voicecraft employees Davidson and Gerson invented a "vector excitation coder", whatever that may be. Now prior to 1980, the policy in such a case would have been that the invention should belong to the public, since taxpayer dollars paid for the work, and that it should not be patented.

The Bayh-Dole Act changed that, and said that when the contractor was a small business or a nonprofit, and various other conditions were met, then the contractor would be allowed to patent the invention, and keep ownership of that patent for itself ("retain title"). Presumably this was meant as an added incentive for such organizations to take government contracts, and perhaps charge the government less for the work, since they could potentially make extra money by licensing the patent. In 1983 this was expanded (interestingly by Presidential memorandum, and not by amending the law) to cover all government research contractors, not only small businesses and nonprofits.

So, since the Voicecraft invention was in the late 1980s, the expanded act applied, and Voicecraft was allowed to patent the vector excitation coder. Here is the patent they were granted.

This very long sentence seems to loosely imply that small business, not-for-profits and educational institutions will be able to utilise the inventions described in these patents, but I'm only guessing.

On the contrary. While the patent was in effect, nobody was allowed to use the invention unless they could make a deal with Voicecraft to license the patent. That's how patents work. The one exception was the federal government itself, which under the Bayh-Dole Act would be guaranteed the right to use the invention for its own purposes.

As to the effect on people using the invention outside the US, I don't know. See the comments for some other users' thoughts.

It looks like the patent expired in 2007, so now anyone can use this particular design.

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    Good answer with one wrong concept "People or companies outside the US who tried to use it would likewise have been infringing the US patent." No, not at all - patent laws are by their nature territorial. To infringe a U.S. patent you need to make, sell, offer for sale, import or use - in the U.S. Everywhere infringing a patent involves some action in the territory the patent was granted in. The exceptions to this are obscure - either in relation to things done at sea or sub-components of a patented item that are made specifically to be imported and turned into an infringing thing. – George White May 27 at 3:44
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    And the inventors in question could very well file in other places in the world as well as in the U.S. – George White May 27 at 3:45
  • @GeorgeWhite would it be correct to say that Nate's comment is correct but that the overseas infringement isn't enforceable? I'm not sure this is a particularly useful distinction but it would help to understand the law nontheless. – quant May 31 at 2:33
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    No - there is not such thing as overseas infringement. It is not an issue of enforcement. A U.S. patent covers things done in the U.S. A China patent covers things done in China. See the law - 35 U.S. Code § 271. Infringement of patent. Except as otherwise provided in this title, whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent. – George White May 31 at 2:38
  • Great, thanks for the explanation. – quant May 31 at 6:38

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