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The State of Open-source 3D Printing: How to Preemptively Quash Patent Parasites and Trolls

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Josef Průša, the founder and CEO of Prusa Research, published an important and thought provoking article titled “The state of open-source in 3D printing in 2023” where he called for an open discussion to protect the interests of the global 3-D printing community. This is the first of a series of articles to move that discussion forward.

An early open source RepRap 3D printer.

For anyone familiar with 3-D printing history, it is clear that 20-year intellectual property monopolies have held the technology back. Expensive rapid prototypers were only available to manufacturing giants and to a few lucky university researchers. Humanity really did not even start to see the promise of the technology until Adrian Bowyer’s self-replicating rapid prototyper project (RepRap) kicked off with a blog post offering us all wealth without money and the tantalizing open source plans of a basic 3-D printer that could make its own parts. Then came the rise of the makers, tinkerers, hackers, academics and professionals in the open source 3-D printing community, followed shortly after by a deluge of scrappy open source 3-D printing companies that thrived. Rapid innovation where thousands could participate created massive price reductions while actually improving performance. This was all made possible because of the rapid churn in ideas that is the hall-mark of the open source 3-D printing community, where literally everyone could participate. The larger 3-D printing industry (including the proprietary companies) owes an enormous debt to the open source 3-D printing community for both big and small contributions that helped us all stand on the shoulders of giants. For a while, it honestly looked like there was going to be a paradigm shift in both where and how manufacturing took place. Then the goliaths began suing any startup with promise, taking good engineers away from their work and wasting resources on defense lawyers. Many high-profile 3-D printing companies ‘lost their souls’ and turned their backs on the communities that built them. Smaller companies closed their doors because they were not able to compete with the flood of low-cost 3-D printers entering the market from free-loading copy cats. Josef details how the open source innovation advantage, even of his own enormously successful 3-D printing company, is now under several serious threats.

Patent Parasites

First, he brought up the concern that ‘companies have started to apply for local patents based on open-source development’. This is a major issue that can kill innovation in the affected countries with lax novelty oversight and has been a problem for a while. For the open source 3-D printing community, slow innovation in one country slows it for all of us, as we are all in this together. No matter how smart or innovative you are, your company can be hobbled financially by lawsuits (no matter how absurd), and the threat of a lawsuit can stop new companies from entering the market in their tracks. One European company, for example, tried to patent the concept of 3-D printing with a thermoplastic well after the open-source 3-D printing community had been printing happily with them (and Stratasys had been doing it for more than two decades) – literally publishing a list of every thermoplastic their lawyers could find in the claims. Such patents should never be granted, but even when they are, one way to hobble the offensive power of such obvious patents is it to ensure we have laid out a defensive fortress of ‘prior art’.

Andrew Chin showed how to do this to stop stupid DNA patents, and we have tried to make it a wee bit more difficult in our 3-D printing intellectual property space with ‘A novel approach to obviousness: An algorithm for identifying prior art concerning 3-D printing materials’ that won the Editor’s Choice Award for World Patent Information. Hopefully, this will be enough to protect the basic building blocks of 3-D printing, from what is sure to be a crisis, as AI (or even simple scripts) are focused on patenting everything. The courts will decide if this will be effective in the end, or if patent rights will be weakened (e.g. monopoly time reduced) or maybe even dismissed as the evidence that patents slow innovation continues to pile up.

An image of the Hangprinter concept published by Torbjørn Ludvigsen in 2017.

Sadly,  even in the U.S., there are examples of government spin-offs unashamedly applying for patents of open source technologies (see for example the reams of prior art on the open source hangprinter developed by Torbjørn Ludvigsen long before Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a tax-funded organization, tried to patent it through a ). In the U.S., the system for providing prior art and challenging copy-cat patents is absurdly complicated. It would be helpful if the open source hardware community created a software tool to both warn us when open source 3-D printing technologies were under threat and then automate the process of challenging it. For example, it would be great to have an automated system for filing third-party pre-issuance submissions. In true open-source fashion, this could be adapted for each country’s patent system, and it would only take modest flex from the community to block the patent parasites before they get in our way.

Patent Trolls

We need to be worried about this. Although patent rules are different in each country, in the U.S., there is no ‘fair use’ for patents. That means it is illegal to make things for personal use, for educational reasons, or even to do experiments on a patented technology for research, without purchasing a license.  You do not have to be an academic engineer to see how this gets in the way of technical progress. The number of patents related to 3-D printing is growing at a disturbing rate, (3D printing is in the top ten most patented technologies ) as weak innovators hire lawyers to attempt to raid the public domain. Worse yet are patent trolls, which are companies that attempt to enforce patent rights far beyond their patent’s actual value. Often, they are ‘non-practicing entities’, which means they do not even bother to manufacturer products, they just sue people that do. If they are successful, innovation in 3-D printing could be stalled for another 20 years, and good companies that just want to make cool 3-D printers will be forced to waste precious resources on lawsuits, rather than on engineering – the real innovation. Make no mistake – we are all in an intellectual property war in 3-D printing.

Fighting Back

We are not powerless against this onslaught. In fact, even newbies to 3-D printing can make major contributions in these areas. Everyone can help with this by sharing their ideas far and wide on the next steps for open source 3-D printing, no matter how sci-fi. Every little bit helps as long as it is published with a time and date stamp and put into the public domain or with an open source license:  contributions to open source design repositories like Printables, projects on Instructables, commits on Github or Gitlab, blog posts, wikis, YouTube videos, discord servers, social media, peer-reviewed papers, preprints, news articles, comments in Reddit or Hackaday – we need all of it!

It is really hard to get a patent and to use it to threaten someone if the idea is sitting on the web for any patent examiner to find as prior art – especially if we help examiners find it. Help build the fortress around the public domain. Start now – list good ideas open source 3-D printing companies should add to their printers in the comments below.

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