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February 20, 2013

WIRED, 3D Printing, and Patent FUD

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

WIRED published a piece this week by Joseph Flaherty under the inflammatory headline, "How Big Business is Stymying Makers’ High-Res, Colorful Innovations". A more appropriate title would be "Patents appear to be working in the 3D printing field like they work in most other manufacturing fields." That, however, wouldn't sell more ad space.

Flaherty's issue appears to be that there are patents covering aspects of 3D printing and therefore companies are not inventing things de novo without constraint. This is hardly a shock - every business of the last couple centuries has been born into a world where patents existed and some of those patents were even relevant to the new field of business. Indeed, the point of a patent is that you've introduced some innovation or improvement, often by improving upon existing related processes. Much of homebrew 3D printing is innovating and improving on the areas of 2D printing and process manufacturing that have existed for decades. To find that there are relevant patents is far less surprising than it would be if there were no patents.

Furthermore, although the last few years have seen a surge of companies, models, and innovations in 3D printing, the ideas and technologies go back quite a ways. Again, older technologies are often covered by patents, upon which new inventors improve. The specific 10 patents that Flaherty highlights seem pretty normal to me, despite how much he wants to hype things up for this story.

What do you do in such an environment? Well, you do what businesses have always done - you deal with the existing intellectual property. You can license it, innovate around it, show that your machine or process doesn't infringe the specific claims of the patent, file a patent on your improvement that cites the existing patent as recognized prior art, and so on. Bringing 3D printing to every home that wants one is a laudable goal but it's no more likely to be "stymied" by patenting than any other home-use machine, though Flaherty seems fond of hyperbolic descriptives like "fortresses of patents".

In fact, Flaherty seems to hyperventilate over companies doing exactly what I describe. He notes that patent #5,387,380 is held by MIT, which licensed it to a company that... hold your breath, it's scary! ... innovated on it and filed its own patents on its innovations. By the way, MIT doesn't sign exclusive licensing agreements - anyone else who wants to go license that patent from MIT and innovate on it is free to do so. He also seems unhappy that the current crop of 3D-printing companies like 3D Systems and Makerbot are themselves applying for patents.

This is just silly FUD. Patents in 3D printing aren't special - they have all the same strengths and weaknesses as patenting in other industries. It's just that home 3D printing is hot right now and sexy and ... well, that sells more ad space.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Counterpoint


1. jcadams on March 26, 2013 3:12 PM writes...

I think the main point that Mr. Flaherty is making is that many of these patents are on subsystems of a 3D printer. If someone wanted to innovate and create a new process for a 3D printer, he would only do it if it would profit him in some way. So as an example, imagine someone has a brilliant new idea that will change the industry. He makes this brand new 3D printer that has a new feature. The problem is that in creating a full printer he used a subsystem unrelated to his new feature, and that unrelated subsystem has been patented. If he releases his new 3D printer, he will be sued for infringement of that patent, so he will need to think of an innovation for that subsystem as well. The problem is that infringing subsystem is the most basic and logical way to do it. Any other way of going about it would be backward and stupid. With all of the subsystem patents on 3D printing, he probably infringes 10 patents, and there is no way he can develop this product

If he wants, he can try to patent his new subsystem without selling a product. Maybe he can sell the patent, right? Well getting a patent is so expensive and time consuming, that it is impossible for a normal person to do it, especially if he doesn't have a team of legal experts to back him up. Eventually someone will dispute his patent or sue him for infringement, and even if this entity has no case, the inventor can't afford the lawyers for trial. No one in their right mind would file for a patent in such a hot field without a lot of money backing them up. And that is why only big companies will do it, and no one besides other big companies can dispute them because no one else has the money for it.

That is why Mr. Flaherty claims patents in the 3D printing industry are stifling innovation. Yes, it has been the same way for hundreds of years, but perhaps his point is that the world is very different and a much smaller place than it was hundreds of years ago and maybe things need to change.

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