A few weeks ago a spat erupted between popular low-cost 3D printer manufacturer Creality and 3D printing retailer Printed Solid. This public spat highlights some of the core issues affecting the 3D printing community today. In short most “open source” 3D printers are not in a meaningful way giving back to the community. They use open source files made by others and then produce derivative machines. This is allowed but in fact, leaves the development of 3D printing as a technology up to very few companies. Subsequently, these producers often ‘fork’ from existing open source designs and start adding proprietary technology on top of an existing open source design. This may be allowed or it may not be but in fact is a widely followed practice in our industry. In the Creality case, a vendor used GPL licensed open source designs. The GPL license, in essence, makes anyone who uses it share their resulting designs as well. Creality is accused of not doing this. In a violation of a license. This is clearly a very worrying thing for our community. With printer, software and part designs we need to come up with new ways of ensuring that inventors get rewarded for their hard work. We must ensure that inventors and designers can attribute and safeguard their designs while being able to share them as widely as possible. Especially on the desktop, we as a 3D printing community owe a lot to open source designs. But, how do we strike a balance between policing infringement, protecting designers and ensuring as unfettered as possible access to new ideas?
Fused Deposition Modeling was invented by Stratasys and commercialized by this company. Also called FFF, Fused Filament Fabrication, this filament based technology produces highly dimensionally accurate and tough parts. Recognizable materials such as ABS, PETG and ASA can be turned into filament and this filament can be coherently layer by layer extruded by a machine. Finish and surface quality are not amazing but FDM is a low-cost way of producing parts that can be used by companies to manufacture.
It is also comparatively easy to make FDM printers. Development times and part costs are far lower than other technologies. When Stratasys’ patents start expiring an initial group of RepRap people start to explore sharing designs and creating 3D printers based on those open source designs. Many designs are tried, only a few are successful and these are widely imitated or built upon. MakerBot commercialized an open source design, has its community build upon it and then closed-sources the design and sells itself to Stratasys. This is the original sin in the community that makes many of us very antsy when it comes to open source and commercialization. MakerBot and companies such as Ultimaker are the second wave of companies after Stratasys. In the third wave the MakerBot and Ultimaker designs are widely blindly imitated by many companies worldwide. They copy everything including the mistakes and just make margin off of lower-cost components, the third wave. In the fourth wave companies, such as Printrbot, engineer lower-cost systems while others add colour screens, filament end detection and all sorts of add-ons to existing designs. Here at the fourth wave, we see our market diverge into a low-cost race to the bottom and high-end 3D printers for the enterprise. In now the fifth wave we see the emergence of true low-cost systems whilst other startups such as Raise and Craftbot make integrated offerings consisting of printers and software. This is where we are now.
Creality, along with Anet and others, leads the fifth wave of 3D printers, on the low end. Inexpensive value engineered 3D printers that were available from below $500 and later on below $200 made 3D printing more accessible. These companies performed little to no R&D but were experts in engaging with a wide network of Chinese suppliers to obtain low-cost parts and services. Through value engineering and design for manufacturing, they introduced new materials, obtained cheap parts and remade Prusa or other 3D printers into low-cost printers for $150. There was great potential in this as a way to make 3D printing more widely available. Essentially these companies were treating a 3D printer not as some super special alchemy device but as they would a toaster. They used affiliate marketing and made use of the expanding YouTubers to gain traction to get up to producing in high volume. There was no innovation in the printers themselves but instead, they innovated in their use of the supply chain and through engineering cheap ways to deliver and make printers.
We’re all thieves. All of us all of the time. We either take from our customers by overcharging or have taken from someone else by stealing their idea. We’re in a very competitive industry and we generally don’t have the time to moralize. But, we oh so love to pretend we’re some kind of a cross between the UN and a Build a Bear Workshop. We’re a multi-billion dollar industry and the cowboys, unethical people and straight up con men I’ve met in this industry far eclipses anything else I’ve seen in any other industry. It’s timeshares with machines and I’ve seen a lot of stuff that will make a cutthroat realtor blanche. Yes, I’ve found a lot of idealists and people who want to share and I love to help those people. By and large however our industry is currently dominated by a bunch of guys who wouldn’t hit a guy when he’s down. Instead, they’d kick him and aim for the head. But, when someone makes a mistake and is publicly caught out then all of a sudden everyone is holier than thou and shames them as if we’re a part of some global cancer cure project. Yes, 3D printing has a lot of potential to do good. But, as Pollyanna as we can imagine us to be and ever have been, the entire desktop industry is now a fast-growing profitable billion dollar industry. Let’s be realistic here people. If we start a circus we’re going to have clowns, we’re going to have ringleaders and we’re going to have cages. And if you’re not a ringleader and not a clown while you haven’t noticed the cages but only have seen the stage then you’re probably an elephant. And being an elephant is all fine and dandy and a very ethical existence to boot. Elephants, however, can probably not, despite their intelligence, open cages. And elephants can definitely not imagine a world where someone would desperately want to build a cage to capture them. So wake up people.
What is open source anyway?
With open source the source code of a software package can be viewed, inspected and changed by all comers. Anyone who wishes can, under certain guidelines, improve, critique and help build a software package. By sharing the source code itself not only the recipe and ingredients for a certain dish are shared but all the notes and methods as to how this dish was developed are shared as well. By looking at and helping develop the source code itself a programmer can learn not only how to make Pasta Carbonara but how to make new kinds of pasta, how to develop pasta dishes as well as how to cook. On top of that many people can download and use that software however they wish to use it. The correct sharing and use of this software are governed by licenses. Most open source development in the world concerns software but increasingly people are seeing open source as a way to share and jointly develop hardware as well. Software licenses are being used to share hardware, designs, instructions and also software governing 3D printers.
What is the GNU GPL license?
GNU General Public License v3.0 is what has been violated. This GNU license is very much one for people who wish to encourage sharing. It explicitly provides that anyone using works under GNU GPL v3.0 must share derivative works. The GNU GPL licenses are rather activist ones which are meant to above all provide for a sharing of anything that is made using GNU GPL works. If the license is violated a report is made to the GNU foundation and they are supposed to take action.
What is Marlin?
Marlin is a group of people who are the single point of failure for 3D printing. The Marlin firmware powers most 3D printers and governs how your file is actually printed by the printer. Without Marlin we would all have to make our own firmware or we would all have to pay for it. Marlin is absolutely essential for the 3D printing community.
Creality paid an outside software company to make changes to Marlin binaries for the Creality 3D printer. They then did not share their resulting changes with the community. This meant that the new source code was not given to people so it could not be shared. This meant that they were in violation of the GPL or in non-compliance with the license. Everyone got all high and mighty about it. Later on, Creality changed its version of the software to a new version where they were in compliance.
Storm in a teacup?
Not exactly. Hundreds of companies at any one time are not in compliance with one license or another. Some firms actually share printer designs according to their licenses but the vast majority do not. What is unique here is that a software license was clearly violated. There was clear evidence of this in the software not being available while it was in use by Creality. This led to a kerfuffle which caused the company to change its ways. This is the exception, this is how this is supposed to work. Meanwhile in hardware, designs are copied in clear violation of copyrights, designers’ rights, patents and licenses. What happens as a result? Nothing. Nada. Nobody bats an eye. Dozens of people I know personally have had their designs stolen and reappropriated. Many designs have been commercialized against the original intent of the designer. Many printers have been copied wholesale and many resulting licensing agreements have been violated wholesale as well. So we have no solution for open source hardware development at the moment in 3D printing. What do you think should happen?