As 3D printing technology becomes more widely recognized by and commercialized towards consumers, money hungry companies may race to patent everything under the sun, in an attempt to capitalize on this ever-growing technology. There could be some major potential issues that come with the patenting of 3D printing technology, particularly given the open source contributions by the RepRap community that have also helped to make 3D printing more accessible to the general public. In a new paper from Michigan Tech’s RepRap researcher in residence, Joshua Pearce, the associate professor explains that 3D printing-related patents have already increased in recent years, with innovation-stifling implications:
In 2012, the global market for 3-D printing / AM products and services grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28.6%, increasing from US$1.714 billion in 2011 to US$2.204 billion . This investment has come with a significant increase in the number of 3-D printing and additive manufacturing patents. Where as in 2001 there were under 50 patents, the growth has shot up by a factor of 2 by 2006, and by more than a factor of 10 to over 550 patents in 2013 . This acceleration of aggressive patenting in the 3-D printing space is already causing concern for some of the 3-D printing industry members and to the wider technology community. It has even been suggested that aggressive patenting in 3-D printing could be used as a strategic national industrial weapon .
In order to combat this attempted hijacking of open source 3D printing technology, Pearce has developed a “low-cost open-source algorithm for identifying prior art concerning 3-D printing materials”. The algorithm will allow Makers to search specifically known 3D printing materials and renders them “obvious”, which takes away any proprietary features from materials and makes them “generic”, so-to-speak. “Obvious” materials are not able to be patented, which will allow Makers to discover the necessary materials and forbid so-called patent trolls from discouraging open source innovation in 3D printing. The paper uses the following hypothetical to describe how the tool works:
To make [the function of the algorithm] more clear, consider a hypothetical constrained world with less material selection – e.g. if the natural (n) and man-made (m) both only consisted of three materials. In this world a design problem might be to make a 3-D printed candy snack and the candy designer would need to choose from: n1 = cocoa, n2 = peanuts, n3 = sugar, m1 = chocolate, m2 = peanut butter, and m3 = cotton candy. Using the algorithm the obvious materials for 3-D printing would include n1, n2, n3, m1, m2, m3, n1n2, n1m1, n1m2, and so forth. Therefore, following current patent law in this hypothetical material-constrained world, it should not be possible to patent a material for 3-D printing like m1m2n3 (e.g. a chocolate and peanut butter snack coated in sugar, which ironically was just published in 2011 by General Mills for non-3-D printed applications as shown in claim 15 of U.S. patent US20110020502 A1) . It should be noted that a notice of appeal has been filed according to the USPTO PAIR database. Making lists of what could be potentially useful 3-D printable materials from a subset of materials (as is done in Case Study 2 above) can be considered obvious and simply selecting from a large pool of N or M makes it no less obvious. Similarly, choosing to change the size of n2 (different sizes of peanut chunks) in a mixture of m1 and m2 (chocolate and peanut butter) can also be considered obvious. As is coupling a material with a specific function with another. On the other hand, an argument can be made that the combination of various selected parameters from a large pool of available parameters renders the claimed invention non-obvious if the combination has not been previously proposed or suggested in the prior art. This could explain why such broad patent claims are granted. Such arguments are more difficult to make after an algorithm like the one discussed here has been released as patenting is currently only allowed in the U.S. for non-obvious inventions. Interestingly, patenting the algorithm itself is not currently allowed under patent law as it is considered to be an abstract concept .
This algorithm has big implications for both scientists looking to develop new materials and Makers looking to make use of any known 3D printing materials and material combinations. But, even more so, the algorithm is geared to keep recycled and virgin materials, which are expanding tenfold with RepRap recyclebots and other commercialized desktop plastic extruders focused on minimizing material waste. As companies and Makers utilize recycled and other environmentally conscious materials more and more, the algorithm developed by Pearce and his team will ensure that these filaments remain widely available and unable to be patented by the money hungry trolls.
Although the war against patent trolls will not be won with this algorithm alone, Pearce and his team have taken an important step towards ensuring that 3D printing materials remain accessible, affordable, and open source. By scanning an entire database of known 3D printing materials, we will be able to discover whatever material it is that we may need for our unlimited printing potential. The battle to keep 3D printing technology open and free of patents rages on, and what these RepRap researchers are proving with this material-recognition algorithm is that they sure as hell won’t go down without a fight.