(Paul’s) Post One, Part One: Patents and 3D Printing

(click here for part 2)

Law in the Making is a mix of daily links, comments and stories, with regular posts that dig a little deeper. Here’s my first contribution to the latter endeavour – an attempt to start explaining the current 3D printing boom from an intellectual property perspective.

So 3D printing and intellectual property… why shouldn’t a law blog be the place to pour some cold water on an otherwise warm and exciting moment for humanity? Of course, I’m kidding. (Mostly)

The fact is, intellectual property rights are going to affect both 3D printer makers and users, and it will require understanding and deftness to keep from stifling an otherwise incredibly important tech moment. So let’s start talking about patents and why this exciting new era exists at all.

Challenge 1: Making Printers Without Getting Sued

It has been noted that the current low-cost 3D printing start-up frenzy is partly attributable to the fact that numerous patents that previously stood in the way have started to clear out. What is less often discussed is which patents we are actually talking about! Who were/are the inventors? What are the patented technologies? This post (and its subsequent parts) will hopefully answer some of those questions.

There are multiple ways to accomplish what is ubiquitously known as ‘3D printing’ and many of these technologies were contemporaneously developed in the 1980s. This is hardly surprising, as the 80s marked the beginning of a golden era of automation and a new focus emerged on rapid prototyping.

The original U.S. patent for Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), an additive technology to melt and ‘fuse’ materials in order to build objects from hardening layers, was filed in 1989 and issued to S. Scott Crump in 1992. Crump quickly commercialized his invention. He co-founded the now-massive 3D printing company Stratasys the same year he filed the original FDM patent. Stratasys printers still use FDM technology and Crump is still there as Chairman of the Board of Directors and Head of Innovation.

Crump’s original FDM patent expired in 2009. Not coincidentally I’m sure, MakerBot Industries, home of the popular low-cost Thing-O-Matic and Replicator 3D printers, was founded in January 2009. And they are not alone – since 2009 the number of low-cost 3D printers from both major and small start-up companies has ballooned, with many using the now off-patent ‘thermoplastic extrusion’ technology (FDM is a method of thermoplastic extrusion).

But sometimes, the first patent expiring is not enough. Later improvements, which can also be patented, often hold the keys to commercialization and/or low-cost printers. For example, another series of 3D printing patents related to selective laser sintering (SLS), a technology allowing additive manufacturing from a broad set of powder materials, has also started to expire. Many of these patents were originally assigned to the University of Texas. The first was issued in 1989, borne out of research by then-student and listed inventor Carl R. Deckard and sponsored by DARPA. The technologies were later licensed to and further developed by DTM Corporation (along with Deckard) and still later acquired and improved by 3D Systems, the well-known world leader in 3D printing. Two of those original University of Texas patents expired in 2006. Other improvement patents have continued to expire. But even more will expire in 2014 and beyond, and it is the later patents that are some of the most exciting to low cost printer manufacturers. These patents could provide low-cost printer manufacturers with the ability to make printers that are more affordable and that can print at higher resolutions. It is possible a new series of low-cost printers based on the soon-to-expire SLS patents could begin to proliferate.

And so, these technologies rooted in the 1980s are being released to the public domain, allowing new start-ups like MakerBot to enter the market and compete without facing the same licensing costs or infringement risks.

But, unsurprisingly, while the basic patents are clearing out many have rushed to fill the void. In the coming weeks, this blog will look at new patents on novel and improved 3D printing technologies, lawsuits that have already been filed, and the implications for this nascent industry.

What is clear is that without an intellectual property standards and licensing strategy, low-cost 3D printing innovation could become stalled again. It’s a conversation that, thankfully, industry and government are already beginning. Just last month, the USPTO hosted an additive manufacturing (3D Printing) partnership meeting at its Alexandria campus. It will be very interesting to see whether a new kind of dialogue can prevent a patent arms race.

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Thanks for reading Post One, Part One! Post One, Part Two (think of it as additive blogging) will talk about some more 3D printing patents that are expiring and how that doesn’t mean the way is completely clear for low-cost 3D printing.  And Post Two (dealing with Challenge 2: Printing Stuff Without Getting Sued) will discuss the legal issues that surround the printing of patented technologies. Any thoughts on a title? Fair Use or Clear Abuse… Ain’t no Thangiverse… Let’s get Physible… I’m open to suggestions.

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