WASHINGTON -- After a 26-year court fight, Hughes Aircraft Co. gained the Supreme Court's permission yesterday to collect $112 million from the federal government for violating a Hughes patent on space satellite controls.
Without comment, the justices refused to hear a Justice Department appeal, probably marking the end of a dispute that has reached the highest court three times.
The Hughes invention at issue involves a guidance system that keeps satellites in the same spot over Earth as they orbit -- a stationary position that is vital to communications satellites.
A federal appeals court has ruled that 81 U.S. government satellites infringed on the Hughes patent by using guidance systems that were not exact copies of Hughes' but were close enough to be considered functionally equivalent. The court awarded Hughes -- now a subsidiary of General Motors Corp. -- $35 million in patent damages, plus $77 million total daily compensation for the infringement.
In urging the Supreme Court to pass up the case, Hughes' lawyers argued: "Perhaps no case in the annals of patent law has been litigated more thoroughly and laboriously than this one."
Hughes first applied for a patent on the invention in 1960, a year after a Hughes engineer, Donald Williams, designed the guidance system. It took until 1973 for Hughes to gain a patent, and it immediately sued the government for infringement.
Williams' invention used a rapidly firing jet to reposition the satellite, along with a method of sensing where the satellite was in relation to the sun, to allow ground crews to determine how to reposition it when necessary.
The government satellites used a somewhat different system, with commands to reposition the satellites generated by on-board computers.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, based in Washington, has twice ruled that the two systems were enough alike that the U.S. government had illegally imitated the central features of Hughes' control system.
Hughes' patent on the system was in force from 1973 to 1990, but its expiration did not end the dispute over the infringement.
Before the Hughes invention, the company noted, the U.S. government had been unable to develop satellites that would maintain a geostationary orbit.
Pub Date: 3/02/99