Licensing options give new life to old software

Amelia Cooper/Sun Star Reporter
April 17, 2012

SwathViewer

This year, the University of Alaska Fairbanks negotiated its first proprietary license since it reorganized the intellectual property office in 2010.

The software, a six year old project known as SwathViewer, creates maps primarily through an imaging interface similar to Google Earth.  The SwathViewer interface was made to run in Safari, but works in most other internet browsers.

UAF gets a competitive edge by licensing SwathViewer  as proprietary rather than open source because licensees are less free to change the code.

In 2006, physics graduate student and researcher Dan Stahlke invented SwathViewer. This year, that software was licensed to SeaSpace, a California-based remote sensing company.

Remote sensing makes it possible to collect information about potentially dangerous areas without touching or visiting them. Remote sensing encompasses infrasound, acoustic mapping and satellite images, among other sensing techniques, according to UAF Intellectual Property Specialist Adam Krynicki. “It’s a broad topic,” he said.

Satellite photography, radiometry, infrared and infrasound are all passive remote sensors: they collect information without affecting the target. Radar and Light Detection And Ranging (known as LiDAR) are active remote sensors: they emit energy to scan objects.

Stahlke started developing SwathViewer when his employer, the Geographic Information Network of Alaska (GINA), asked him to modify a remote sensing program called Glovis. Stahlke soon realized that, due to the nature of what he called “large swath-shaped images” that the satellites produced, this would not be feasible.

“So I started from scratch,” Stahlke said, “initially mimicking the Glovis interface.”

When a discovery is made using university resources, it belongs to the university. It works the same with state resources. This is clear for discoveries by faculty and staff, but not as clear for student discoveries, Associate Vice-Chancellor of Research Dan White said.

If a student invents something while taking a class, the intellectual property belongs to that student. If a student invents something while involved with university research, it belongs to the university. Dan Stahlke was a research assistant, so SwathViewer technically belongs to UAF.

The World Intellectual Property Organization defines intellectual property as “creations of the mind,” whether industrial or artistic. Industrial and artistic intellectual property can be protected by patent or copyright.

The UAF Office of Intellectual Property and Commercialization (OIPC) does all of the heavy lifting for student inventors such as Stahlke.

“The university goes through the expense of protecting the intellectual property,” White said.

This means that the inventor doesn’t have to find a lawyer, but will receive revenue from licensing through a revenue sharing agreement with the university. The university gets a boost in productivity, the company’s product has new resources and ultimately the consumer benefits from the innovation, White said. 

Krynicki, the office’s attorney, organized the license agreement for SwathViewer.

UAF’s Tech Transfer Office reopened as the OPIC in fall 2010. The entire system was reorganized and efforts were refocused at finding markets for the inventions.

Before the switch, the office was in disarray, and there wasn’t a clear focus. The overhaul was positive, White said.

White had a gold mining-related invention some time ago, before the shift, he said, but with all of the disorganization it never got through the patent process. “We just gave up,” he said. “So nobody uses it, and nobody will use it.”

When the office was reorganized, White and Krynicki looked through old intellectual property and picked out items that still had potential: “What could we take a new look at?”

“There are a number of things patented over the years that don’t have value anymore,” White said. Technology, especially software, becomes outdated quickly. SwathViewer was one of the pre-OPIC inventions that they pulled off of the shelf.

SwathViewer uses very little bandwidth, White said.

“That’s the name of the game: who can have these interface tools without slowing your home computer down,” White said.

The market for licensing intellectual property is known to be a cannibalistic one. “There are lots of competitors that will get an exclusive license from you on your project, and that may never see the light of day,” White said. These companies buy the rights to intellectual property so that their competitors can’t use it, and have no intention of using it themselves. SeaSpace is not likely to be one of these companies.

The SeaSpace website proclaims “world’s leading provider of satellite ground stations and processing software for remote sensing applications.” Other remote sensing software licensed to SeaSpace include TeraScan, TeraVision, RaMPS, Vulcan and Dvorak.

One of the biggest blocks in the way of pursuing intellectual property protections is “prior art research.” When a potential idea comes to Krynicki, the first thing he does is check to see if it’s already been made.

“Somebody already invented it, we can’t legally protect it,” White said.

White doesn’t want to discourage ideas, though.

“One of the really fun things for us and the community is finding things that the Fairbanks community could develop,” he said.”It’d be nice if we were making stuff.”

This has been a productive year for the OPIC. A graph on its January 2012 brochure shows that the office explored 33 invention proposals and received 13 new invention disclosures. That’s more than the previous three years combined, according to the accompanying text.

Stahlke only used SwathViewer for simple things, like checking the weather. “I was not an earth scientist, I was a computer programmer,” he said. Stahlke left UAF and GINA two years ago to pursue a PhD in physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He is still a temporary employee with GINA.

“I just kept adding features as they were requested,” Stahlke said. “I never expected the project to grow as it did.”

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