What Unauthorized Manipulation of Starlink Signals Teaches Us About the Importance of IP

“Property rights do not extend to something so intangible as electronic signals, and that includes intellectual property ownership—[and] they shouldn’t. But the Starlink story illustrates what happens when property ownership is inert.”

Starlink signals can be manipulated. In fact, they already have been, by unauthorized third parties. The agents are proclaiming their success and letting the world know that there is nothing Starlink can do about it. I’m inclined to agree.

A professor at the University of Texas has found a way to use Starlink signals to develop a new global navigation technology that would operate independently of GPS or its European, Russian, and Chinese equivalents (Starlink’s terminals have also been successfully hacked, but that’s a different issue. This article deals with the unauthorized usage and alteration of the Starlink signals).

So why can’t Starlink do anything about this? Because they don’t own their own signals. In fact, nobody does. To this date, property rights do not extend to something so intangible as electronic signals, and that includes intellectual property ownership. Before we go further, let me say it clearly at the outset: they shouldn’t. This is not that type of article. But the Starlink story illustrates what happens when property ownership is inert.

Why IP Does not Protect Starlink Signals

Property rights is about the right to exclude – you don’t have to live in your home but your home ownership means you can exclude trespassers at your discretion. Intellectual property does not bestow upon its owners a right to practice; instead it is the right to exclude others from doing so.  Contrast this right with a right to drive a car. With a driver’s license, you can drive a car, but you have no right to prohibit others from road access.

When the intellectual property laws were conceived, it was the case that when it comes to a man-made product, system or process having commercial value, it would be protected by intellectual property. But as technology keeps developing, it’s progressively moving beyond the scope of the original laws.

Had patents been provided in this case, Starlink would have had the right to exclude others from  using their signals. When it comes to patent protection, patent exclusivity extends to a new or useful process, machine or manufacture (i.e., an article or apparatus), and composition of matter. Electronic signals fail to qualify under any of these categories and are therefore considered not patent eligible subject matter.

Copyright protection actually extends to communication signals (e.g. pay-per-view, radio, satellite, broadcasts, etc.). But copyrights wouldn’t work in this case because copyright infringement requires copying. The Starlink signals being manipulated by unauthorized parties would pose a problem for copyrights (if they are even deemed copyrightable) because they are not actually being copied or reproduced. Rather, the signals are being used as a starter ingredient for something that’s seemingly new.

Why Did No One Seek a License?

The idea of modifying the Starlink signals to create a GPS alternative seems like a commercially profitable endeavor. So why did the University of Texas researchers not seek a collaboration agreement with Starlink beforehand? Well, it seems like they did. According to MIT Technology Review, “When the idea was first proposed in 2020, executives at SpaceX were open to the idea.” But as every other LEO [low Earth orbit] communications network has gone into bankruptcy,” SpaceX could not “afford any distractions” and chose “to focus completely on staying out of bankruptcy.” At that point, there was no further collaboration.

Normally, under these circumstances, the parties can form a licensing agreement in which the researchers can take the responsibility of furthering research and development while both parties find a way to share the profits. Except licensing happens when there is ownership of something to be licensed. Again, there was no patent ownership of the electronic signals at issue.

In the absence of property rights, there is no contract potential, and unfortunately, no pathway for efficient deals. Takings without compensation is possible and there is nothing the supplier can do.

Don’t Expect Open Source

While they have not yet commented, Starlink is probably not happy about their signals being manipulated and is not keen to the idea of open sourcing their output for public use. The entire reason Starlink did not pursue offering a GPS alternative despite their capability is that they wanted to avoid bankruptcy, meaning they want to make money. That monetary incentive is going to keep them from letting their output be used by third parties without any say or oversight. While that may not affect you and me, the viability and connectivity of Starlink can affect a certain liberation movement in Eastern Europe.

Image Source: Deposit Photos
Image ID: 550806760
Author: MikeMareen 


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Join the Discussion

3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for B.S.E.E.]
    December 17, 2022 09:51 am

    Furthermore the transmitted Starlink signals are received, demodulated, detected, and decoded. Just like any other “broadcast signal”. Each of the last three of those steps all involve making a “copy”.

  • [Avatar for Lab Jedor]
    Lab Jedor
    December 12, 2022 12:44 pm

    Fun article.

    “… something so intangible as electronic signals…”

    An electromagnetic (EM) signal is NOT INTANGIBLE. An EM signal is physically very detectable, and that is exactly the purpose of transmitting EM signals.

    Furthermore, there are quite stringent rules about intercepting and using radio and cable signals. The issue here (if I understand it correctly) is that Starlink satellites broadcast open beacon or ID signals and that the novel GPS application receives and applies these signals. These signals are not encrypted or scrambled it seems and may be applied “as received.” Starlink may not care too much right now.

    You say: “… and there is nothing the supplier can do.”
    However, Starlink, may in the future encrypt (or threaten to encrypt) all or some of its beacon signals (apply an anti-spoofing code, for instance), requiring decryption to create a working GPS system. In that case other laws than patent law and copyright law, will probably kick in.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    December 12, 2022 08:00 am

    The banner comment of, “Property rights do not extend to something so intangible as electronic signals, and that includes intellectual property ownership—[and] they shouldn’t.”

    should immediately be rejected.

    That statement, on its face, would allow pirating and copying of ALL digital goods, whose nature is of the essence of transport as electronic signals.

    Further, that actual logical conclusion that should be drawn from this are of (case) law is just how incongruent with reality the likes of In re Nuitjen was decided.

    No one was ever talking about unaltered, non-man-made signals, and the plain fact of the matter is that it is ONLY the actually constructed (read that as artificially changed — by the hands of man for a purpose in commerce) signals that fall into the arena of claimed protection.