How Hard is Low-Cost 3D Printing Patent Infringement?

A new article in the New York Times highlights both an interesting application for 3D printing, and (though it isn’t the point of the article) the ease with which one might infringe a patent with a 3D printer.

The story is about a lawyer named Martin Galese who has taken to converting drawings from expired patents into ‘things’ that can be downloaded and printed for free from MakerBot’s site Thingiverse or his blog.

Not unlike the fictional scientists of “Jurassic Park,” Mr. Galese scours the patent office’s archives for the “design DNA” of antique inventions, then reinterprets them as design files for today’s 3-D printers. He has posted more than a dozen of these forgotten inventions on his blog as well as the 3-D printing design library, Thingiverse, for anyone to make today.

Not all of these objects would necessarily have infringed the patents they originated from – but some certainly could reach that bar. And it would be a mistake to think that these patented objects are only easily reproduced by a 3D printer because they are old. Not all patented subject matter, new or old, is complex. Complexity has never been a requirement for getting a patent – only inventiveness (i.e. the alleged invention is novel, useful and not obvious). In fact, many patents are for relatively simple objects that are nevertheless inventive. And many of these patented objects can be easily 3D printed with today’s low-cost technology.

For example, one of Mr. Galese’s objects is a chess set. But the truth is that relatively simple chess sets are still being patented today, and it wouldn’t be difficult to program a 3D printer to create something very similar to the chess sets described in more recently granted patents.

To me this demonstrates that low-cost 3D printed patent infringements are coming fast. They may well have happened already.

Update (3:27 pm):

I just saw a post on Mr. Galese’s blog that seems to confirm that he sees the possibility of infringement too:

Patent may well be the tool used to impose control, governmental or quasi-corporate, on 3D printing.

And if you support gun control, for example, *and* get excited about the possibilities of home printing in metal or some more durable material, you should start thinking about how you control a device that can be used to build unregistered copies of a device you don’t even know about.


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