These patent applications relate directly to UAP observables, in that UAPs seem to defy the known laws of physics precisely by appearing to deploy unthinkable amounts of energy in small regions of space, manipulate gravity at will, and have little to no inertial mass. For this reason, many—such as Ariel Cohen, writing for Forbes—have speculated that Pais’s ostensible inventions may be a cover for reverse-engineered UAP technology, and the associated patents an attempt by the US Navy to stay ahead of China and Russia in the new arms’ race.
In this essay, I will argue that these speculations are based on a fundamentally wrong understanding of how the game of Intellectual Property Rights—or ‘IPR’ in short, which includes patents—is played. Whatever NAWCAD’s inventions are, they aren’t reverse-engineered UAP technology and almost certainly have no defense significance.
Although I am best known as a philosopher and scientist, I have spent almost 25 years in the high-tech industry doing technology strategy. I have been deeply immersed in the world of high-tech IPR, having even once co-founded a computer company—Silicon Hive, now part of Intel—that dealt in IPR licensing. As such, despite not being a lawyer myself, I am qualified to opine on patent matters.
A patent is a legal monopoly: it gives an individual or a company the right to be the exclusive exploiter of the patented idea for a limited period—usually 20 years—unless the individual or company in question chooses to license the patent to a third-party. The goal is to give companies an incentive to invest in Research and Development (R&D) without fear that its competitors will immediately benefit from the fruits of that R&D without having invested in it. Patent law is at the foundation of high-tech entrepreneurship for this reason. Without it, which company would invest billions in, say, inventing a new drug, just to see its key competitors reverse-engineer the drug and commercialize an identical, cheaper alternative within months?
But patents represent a trade-off. While giving their holders temporary monopoly power, they also force the inventors to publicly disclose the ideas in question. Indeed, patents—and even patent applications—are public documents by law, available on multiple searchable databases such as Google Patents. Moreover, not only do the inventors have to publicly describe their inventions, they must also do so in a manner that a “person skilled in the art”—that is, a minimally competent practitioner in the field in question—can, based on a patent’s text and diagrams alone, implement a working embodiment of the corresponding invention.
As such, patents are the opposite of industrial secrets. Before deciding whether to patent an idea, a company needs to weight its monopoly benefits against giving the competition a head-start; for this is exactly what a patent application does: it broadcasts to the world the lines along which a company is developing its technology.
Sometimes, the decision of whether to patent an invention or keep it a secret is straightforward. For instance, it may be impossible to hide an idea, either because it is a visible and advertised product feature—such as a fingerprint reader or facial scanner to unlock your phone—or because the product can be easily bought from a shop and reverse-engineered. In these cases, it’s best to patent the whole thing in advance, as the secret cannot be kept.
The opposite decision can also be straightforward: if the idea is not discernible in the end-product—for instance, when the invention is about a particular manufacturing method, as opposed to a product feature—it becomes very difficult to prove that the competition is illegally using it, and the patent cannot be enforced in practice. It’s then best to protect the method as an industrial secret instead.
Now, which of these scenarios applies best to military hardware and associated inventions? Well, unlike a mobile phone with advertised facial recognition technology, the key features of military hardware aren’t publicly announced or trivially discoverable; you can’t purchase a Chinese J-20 stealth fighter from a shop down the street to see how it is put together. So, if the Chinese were to steal the key inventions behind, say, the American F-22 fighter and use them in their J-20, we wouldn’t be able to take a J-20 apart to prove that it infringes American patents, would we? There is thus no reason to patent these inventions, even if we were to naively assume that Chinese courts—or the courts of any other state, for that matter—would enforce international IPR law above their national security interests and defense industry.
Indeed, the value of patents is entirely based on their enforceability—i.e., the assurance that patent infringers will be prosecuted and the IPR law adequately applied. This holds, by and large, in the corporate world, as companies can incur large financial penalties for infringing IPR.
But such is not the case in the defense world. Do you believe that China would prosecute their own defense contractors if the latter were to use more advanced, patented American technologies in their missiles and aircraft? Do you believe that, if the key inventions behind, say, the F-35 or the B-21 were laid out neatly, explicitly, and very publicly in the “preferred embodiment” section of a patent application, other countries wouldn’t immediately leverage that free knowledge in their own aircraft and air defense systems? Countries routinely break international law by spying on each other so to steal each other’s military secrets; do you think they would abide by international IPR law in the case of patents?
When it comes to defense, the way to protect technology is through industrial secrecy, not patents. The latter are public how-to books on the implementation of key ideas, which would just hand over to the competition one’s key military secrets. As such, the US Navy is not procuring patents for Pais’s inventions to prevent the Chinese from using them; to think so is preposterously naïve. If anything, the patent applications do precisely the opposite: they tell the Chinese, step by step, how to implement the inventions.
Patents can, in principle, be used by American defense contractors as legal weapons against each other, in their mutual competition for government contracts, under the overarching jurisdiction of US law. The Navy, too, could conceivably use patents as pricing leverage against defense contractors. But even in these cases, the more consequential and game-changing ideas would not be patented because, again, patents are public documents that broadcast to the world how key (military) technology can be advantageously implemented; one just doesn’t do that for ideas that could change the outcome of a war.
If I know this, then so do the Chinese and any other minimally competent state actor. As such, Pais’s patents aren’t a ruse to throw the Chinese or the Russians off course either. For both the Chinese and the Russians will know that, if the Americans are filing for patents on, say, a certain gravity drive technology, then that’s a blind alley. No player will broadcast a how-to document on the implementation of their key military technologies to the world, and all players know this.
I have heard some speculate that, by filing for those patents, the Navy is preemptively stopping others—Chinese, Russian, or otherwise—from being granted similar patents. Let us pretend for a moment that any third-party patent would place a limit on what the American defense industry is allowed to pursue in the interest of national security; even then, this hypothesis, too, betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of patent law.
To get a patent, a party indeed needs to show that it was the first to come up with the idea in question (the so-called “priority date” in patent law). Any previous publication of the idea (called “prior art” in patent law) invalidates a patent application and can even invalidate the patent itself, even after it has been granted. However, any publication can constitute prior art, not only previous patents. In other words, for the Navy to preempt third-party patents on Pais’s inventions it didn’t need to file for patents; it could have simply published those ideas in any form, which would have been much easier than pursuing patent applications.
Indeed, companies often use specialized “defensive publication” journals, such as Questel, to dump inventions they don’t consider valuable enough to patent, but which they still want to be free to use themselves, and thus want to prevent others from patenting. Doing these defensive publications is much faster, simpler, and cheaper than filing for a patent, as the former entails no examinations, no need for viable embodiments, proof of feasibility, lawyer fees, recurring taxes, etc.
The case of Danish inventor Karl Krøyer, often featured in patent lore, is very illustrative of the point I’m trying to make. Mr. Krøyer invented a method for raising sunken ships by pumping buoyant bodies into the wreck until it becomes buoyant enough to float back to the surface on its own. He proceeded to file for a patent on this method. But, as it turns out, in a 1949 issue of the Donald Duck comic book, in a story called “The Sunken Yacht,” a wreck is raised by stuffing it with ping pong balls. That comic book thus constitutes prior art that can invalidate Mr. Krøyer’s patent. Whether the Donald Duck story was actually used by the patent office to refuse the patent application or not is immaterial; the fact is, it could be used, for legally any publication—even a Donald Duck comic book—featuring the idea in question constitutes prior art. Therefore, no one files for a patent just to prevent others from getting that patent; it’s just not how the game works and NAWCAD obviously knows this.
Which leaves us with the question: Why, then, is the Navy pursuing Pais’s patent applications? It can’t be because they have military significance (if they did, the Navy would be keeping them a secret) and it can’t be because the Navy cares about what other countries are patenting (when it comes to national security, international IPR law matters not). What is left then?
It could be for something as simple as highlighting the relevance and potential value of NAWCAD’s work—making it visible through the media attention those unusual patent applications did get—to increase or protect funding. It could also be because of less-sensational but practical applications of some ancillary embodiments of the inventions outside defense—think of the energy industry, for instance—where patents do make commercial sense.
If you think these are too trivial or implausible reasons to justify the significant reputation risk the Navy has taken on by claiming the invention of gravity drives and inertial mass inhibitors, you will have to enter some tricky speculative territory. I prefer to refrain from that myself. What I am willing to do is to briefly comment on the effects the Navy’s claims have had, for such effects are observable facts, not speculation. And they may provide some hint about the goals of the patent applications to begin with.
As discussed in the foregoing, Pais’s patents are very unlikely to have had any effect on state actors such as China and Russia; both are very well aware of what I discussed above—none of which is polemical or disputed—and will entirely disregard the whole affair as a silly American sci-fi stunt meant for domestic consumption.
Where the patent applications clearly did have an effect is among people in the West who are not familiar with patent law and IPR practice; in other words, the regular folks on the streets of our towns. Many of those people may now be thinking that the UAP observables are not as magical and absurd as they seemed to be at first, for even we, mere human beings, are now producing seemingly credible inventions—endorsed by the Navy!—that can ostensibly replicate at least some of those observables. So maybe the UAP stories aren’t implausible after all, huh? Maybe there is something to them; something that makes good scientific sense and doesn’t force us into tricky mystical ideation.
Now that is a factual, culture-level effect of Pais’s patent applications. Was it deliberate? I don’t know, but I do know this: by choosing patent applications—which are intrinsically associated with technological breakthroughs in the popular psyche—the Navy ensured that they would get a lot of media attention; as they, in fact, did. Could the underlying goal of doing so be the benign wish to help prepare the collective psyche of Western societies for disclosure? Again, I don’t know, but this seems to be a less implausible explanation for such an unusual step than the alternatives.
Bernardo Kastrup is a Dutch philosopher, computer scientist, and the executive director of the Essentia Foundation. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy and another in computer engineering, and has worked as a scientist in some of the world’s foremost scientific laboratories. His main interests are metaphysics and philosophy of mind. He lives in Veldhoven, Netherlands. You can follow the authoron his personal website.