Patent Law

Patents vs. Innovation: 3D Printing Edition

When intellectual property laws block breakthroughs.


2012, Wired reports, was

Not so fast!
Fräulein Schiller / / CC BY-NC-ND

a breakout for desktop 3-D printing. MakerBot released two new models, Formlabs debuted the first prosumer 3-D printer to use high-accuracy stereolithography, and a slew of innovative, printed projects lifted awareness and desirability of additive manufacturing for the general public.

But the year ended with a legal hiccup. Formlabs will be dealing with a patent infringement lawsuit brought against them by 3D Systems, one of the biggest players in the industry. The hobbyist segment of the industry has been built on the back of expired patents, but as the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, many patents that will be required to advance the state of the art will not expire for years or even a decade.

We've uncovered 10 patents that could severely stifle innovation in the low-cost segment of the 3-D printing market and keep you from making colorful, smooth-finished figures and precise, articulating parts. These patents cover core technologies and ease-of-use features, and could take momentum from the upstarts and return it to the entrenched companies.

To read the full list of patents and patent applications, go here.

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  1. This is the MPAA v. Internet all over again. The printer boards and software are already in the wild. The cost about the same as a home computer to buy and assemble. Too late, trolls. You’ve lost again.

    1. It’s actually worse, as patent claims are nasty, expensive, and hard to defend again.

  2. Patents are doing what they’re supposed to: protecting patent-holders from competition and innovation by slowing down the rate at which they can appear. That anyone thinks the patent system would protect or speed up the rate of innovation has made less and less sense to me as time goes on.

    1. I don’t agree that patents aren’t good at some level, but granting them willy-nilly and extending the term has damaged their utility.

    2. Framing it a little one-sided, don’t you think?

      1. I’ve had projects killed because the of the cost of dealing with foolish patents. Sure, we could have done all the things needed to protect ourselves, but opportunity costs and the higher risk drove us to do other things. It was at small companies, and the product might have only grossed a few million of dollars, but it was useful stuff being killed.

        1. That’s not his meaning. I’ve pretty much declared that I think a patent system is innovation-slowing in itself, and he (probably) doesn’t think that’s accurate.

          To say the patent system we have now is screwed up is something most people could agree on, but it’s another thing entirely to claim that patent systems are inherently a bad idea.That’s what he takes exception to (I assume).

      2. It’s just what I think. If we could reform our patent system I’d certainly be willing to see how it plays out, and listen to arguments and/or studies showing that a reformed system would actually do a better job than no system at all.

        But as of right now, I don’t think much of patent systems themselves. I just don’t think they can do what people claim they can (protect and incentivize innovation in general).

        1. I’ve come around to this position too.

          And even more so with copyrights.

  3. My views are well known.

    Patents are a violation of the principle of self-ownership.

    1. And you may experience that firsthand when your hops contracts are decreased for Simcoe?, Citra?, Summit?, and Amarillo? after their shortages are announced.

      1. Its happened before, it will happen again.

        Shortages occur in the non-proprietary hops too.

        Although really, those could be a trade secret anyway. If you cant get a rhizome, you can grow them.

        1. *cant* grow them.

        2. People would start brewing w/ dandelions.

          I’m farming rhizomes this year. Sick of growing tomatos. Probably start with Mt. Hood, Centennial, Chinook, and Magnum.

          1. My Centennials died between 1st and 2nd year.

            My Zeus rock.

              1. They didnt come up 2nd year, it was like they rotted underground over the winter.

      2. And, of course, there are CTZ hops.

        Which are the same thing, but Columbus is a generic name and Tomahawk and Zeus are brand names.

        1. I’m not sure I’ve had a beer w/ the CTZ blend.

          1. CTZ isnt a blend.

            Its three names for the exact same hop.

            And its used all over.

            1. ah! thanks. Obviously I’ve never brewed with CTZ. The wheat this weekend will be Summit and Cascade. I’ve used Magnum to bitter. I don’t branch out too much.

  4. With patents, we have three basic classes of technology: open technology that everyone knows how it works and anyone can use it; patented technology that everyone knows how it works but only the patent holder can use it; and trade secrets that only the developer knows how it works and therefore only the developer can use it.

    Without patents, we would have open technology and trade secrets. All of the technology that requires lots of money to develop would become trade secrets and employment contracts would have brutal non-disclosure terms and conditions.

    Lots of areas of research would be benefit from the loss of patent protections, and lots of other areas of research would suffer because all the really important work is proprietary and conducted in secret.

    Take your pick.

    1. How would trade secrets stay trade secrets when they’re actually put to use?

        1. Ask Zildjain. 14 generations of family run business with the same trade secret.

        2. That only worked for coke because the technology of the time did not allow anyone to run the coke through a mass spectronometer, isolate all of the flavor compounds and reproduce to their hearts content.

          Today for a few hundred bucks pretty much anyone to go to a well stocked Chem lab and get a recipe for making a product indistinguishable from Coke, it might not be Coke’s exact recipe but consumers would not be able to tell the difference.

        3. Hobbyist make clones of first rate brews as their goal. Recreating Coke ain’t asking much.

          1. So what.

            Does anyone believe that Coke’s value is driven solely by their formula.

            1. That’s my point.

        4. Are you saying that pharms that put out generics of complex drugs would struggle to duplicate the ingredients in Coke??

      1. The military side of our business makes circuit boards that are nearly impossible to reverse engineer (wouldn’t want those pesky russkis figuring out how to build our products). Of course, they are pretty much impossible to maintain as well. When they break, you destroy them and buy a new one.

  5. Patents change the nature of the business case for launching a new product. A patent gives you 20 years of protection. In consumer goods, that 5 to 10 generations. All you really need is enough protection to launch your product and, if it is good enough, have it become the defacto standard in the market place.

    A trade secret gives you protection for as long as you can hold onto it. Some technologies are easier to keep secret than others. If you can’t hide the key technology, then you just don’t develop a product. You develop something else.

  6. I came to the realization that if all information is known by everyone, it still requires labor and resources to produce things. So intellectual property is just an entitlement to people who do not wish to expend labor.

    1. but have you realized that in some industries actually discovering the information has an enormous cost, while using it has a relatively low cost? don’t you see a problem there?

      1. Enormous cost b/c of prior patents? The guys who got the first drug patent law passed were geniuses to lock down their products after developing them on the shoulders of the giants who came before them.

      2. I simply disregard that on the principle that the market is not entitled to anything being produced.

  7. The big issue I see is in areas like pharma, where it is not practical to keep a drug a trade secret (well, I wouldn’t want such a drug), nor is it practical to expect the developer of a drug to have no advantage for having actually done the research (as opposed to just synthesizing it).

    1. So the natural outcome, absent government, is for the companies with the low cost manufacturing advantage to hire the most innovative researchers directly. Anyone who tries to copy their products will lose anyway. It’s not like people will leave money on the table.

    2. 20 years of protection from the date of filing for drugs. Some of that eaten up in testing.

      What if duration was based on R&D expenditures?

      You get 1 year for every $20 million spent on R&D?

    3. Maybe disease charities would start to fund research instead of political horseshit.

      1. Wouldn’t that be nice.

    4. A lot of those costs are imposed on the pharma companies because of the FDA and various other regulations that they have to make sure they comply with every step of the way.

      And it completely ignores the fact that they aren’t just coming up with things out of thin air. They are expanding knowledge and ideas of all the chemist/inventors that came before them and that they learned from.

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