Keeping open 3d printing innovation open

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has announced an effort to monitor 3d printing patent applications for possible Pre-issuance Submission actions.  PIS is a new procedure in the America Invents Act patent reform that allows the public to provide patent examiners with prior art.  EFF is working with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society’s Cyberlaw Clinic to identify pending 3d printing patent applications to ensure that what does issue is informed by a solid review of prior art.

Applications that matter include ones claiming methods of 3d printing, material systems, methods of stuffing material systems behind paywalls, apparatus for 3d printing, for 3d printing design and control, 3d printing post production, mixed material systems, mixed modality printing systems, and applications of 3d printing.  Especially important are applications from the likes of Z Corp (now a unit of 3D Systems), which has been a leading patent-swaggering player.  For that matter, 3D Systems itself has had to deal with its own anti-trust issues.  Also important, however, are university-based patent applications.  These can be especially horrific because they are often filed with no purpose other than to offer up to the gods of venture capital in the hope of a big monetary hit–which would come, generally, at the expense of the practice community.

Meanwhile, Public Knowledge, a Washington DC digital rights advocacy group, has been working on the copyright and trademark side of 3d printing, as well as patents.  They have especially been keeping a watch on issues pertaining to designs and software along with sponsoring events to keep legislators and policy-makers up to speed on new developments in 3d printing. 

Innovation can benefit many players, but it is all too easy for companies with money and university administrators with money on the brain to try to tie everything up in a thicket of patent claims and copyrights, turning what ought to be a community-based thing into a private party for trolls and monopolists and suckups.  While the work in powderbed inkjet 3d printing owes a great deal to inventive faculty at MIT, MIT’s own exclusive licenses, and its licensee’s subsequent market behavior have prevented progress of powderbed inkjet 3d printing. Things have developed at a monopoly pace.

One can build a perfectly operational powderbed inkjet 3d printer with off the shelf and locally 3d printed parts for under $500 and operate it for pennies per cubic inch of build material.  Here’s one. Here’s another one.  But because a monopoly-minded company has filed for a pile of “improvement” patents in an effort to extend its monopoly in scope and time for things like sweeping excess powder off a build platform into a “cavity” rather than onto the floor–even though such a thing is clearly shown in prior art now in the public domain–practice community innovation has been effectively suppressed.  Heck, you can’t even run generic materials in a monopoly printer without the company voiding your service contract.   So we are still faced with $10K+ powderbed inkjet printers and material costs over $1 per cubic inch.

If you use a powderbed 3d printer in your professional work, you don’t have a draft mode and you are paying 10x to 20x more than you ought to for materials and hardware.  If you want to make your own, you can’t.  It’s not the price of materials or hardware, or the complexity of design, that is holding things back, it’s the price of monopolies.

The way to beat these guys at this game is to challenge their patent applications, push a lot of stuff open with documentable prior art–start a blog, post your ideas, your methods, your applications, request re-examination of sketchy patents, and file for patents that block the progress of their monopoly, while allowing open use in the practice community.   There are ways to make money, and to fund innovation, even using patents–and it does not have to involve monopolies.  At least universities ought to take this bit to heart and stand up for once, with their patenting practices, for practice innovation.  They blew it with disease assay patents.  Time to learn from those mistakes.

So if you see patent applications that folks ought to challenge with prior art, or you have art that ought to be published to limit what the monopolists can do, or you have patents that you want to put into play to support innovation rather than suppress it, now’s a good time to take stock of what you’ve got, and do something about it.


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