Let The 3d Printing Patent Wars Begin!


If you and your friends were gathering a pool of bets together as to when the first patent case would happen in 3d printing, someone just won the pot. 3D systems has filed suit against formlabs for possible patent infringement.

In a press release by 3D systems, they state that not only are they going after form labs, but also Kickstarter for selling the device.

Although Formlabs has publicly stated that certain patents have expired, 3D Systems believes the Form 1 3D printer infringes at least one of our patents, and we intend to enforce our patent rights

It is worth noting that the “cube” printer that Make magazine recently named the most reliable and easiest to use, happens to be made by 3D systems. Note that this one appears to be a typical rep-rap derivative.

[via Adafruit]

62 thoughts on “Let The 3d Printing Patent Wars Begin!

      1. I wonder if they renewed it? This one expired in 2010 I think. Usually patents have a 7 year life span. They are (as I understand it) there to give the person with an original idea a chance to get a jump on the copy cats and not to bogart the idea forever. Does anyone else have any real knowledge of this process?

        1. Yes the idea originally was to allow innovators to recoup costs and earn a profit from there efforts. Recent changes allow patent(and copywrite) holders to keep control, if not forever, for a very long time. When the patenting of life was allowed, we should have known, where where screwed.

      2. That’s… that’s actually a pretty solid patent. I could swear there was prior art with earlier stereolithography equipment, but I may be wrong. I will say, though, that the patent is clearly applicable to the formlabs machine.

        That said, the patent doesn’t cover the hardware, just the software. formlabs could avoid infringement by focusing solely on hardware and leaving software to the open source community. That would be easier if they’d open up their product a bit more.

        1. Are we reading he same patent?

          I get: “An improved stereolithographic process for forming three-dimensional objects using an improved support structure. The support structure is formed by using differential curing of the liquid media material to form solid supports with weak points at selected locations to facilitate support removal from a three-dimensional object and minimize post-processing.”

          First off, an easily removable support structure exists in other plastic forming methods. I’ve snapped off pieces from model kits in the 80’s that came with thin tabs connecting to a wire raft, and I believe that has been standard for decades. Is the use of a known method in a different production process considered patent worthy?

          Second, am I wrong in assuming that stereolithography is different from melting plastic to print in 3d? I had thought that RepRap derived machines use a heated extruder head, while lithography exposes a material to a light to chemically cure it.

          Considering my first question re: applying known methods to different production processes it looks like if a support tray is suddenly patentable by using a tray with a production method that didn’t use a tray before, then a different production method would be able to bypass the patent for the same reason the patent could be issued in the first place.

          TL:DR is I’m confused by patent laws and the legal system in general. (along with a desire to impulse buy a 3d printer before they’re illegal)

          1. As to the first question: When it comes to patents the big question here is does the new implementation of the existing method require special thought or creative process. A judge needs to decide if it requires a “leap of imagination” to use the support structures, as implemented in a plastic deposition hot extruder printer (or whatever it’s called in patent jargon), in a stereolithography 3d printer. If a leap of imagination or creative thought is required then it IS patentable. If it is not then the support structures as used in 3d deposition extruder printers can be put forward as prior art. Meaning it is not patentable for stereolithography.

            As to your second question: Yes and No. They are not the same device in terms of mechanics and working mechanism. They do however both serve the same purpose, to create a tangible object in 3d space from a raw form base material.

            Your last remark pretty much hits the nail on the head in terms of the patent process/law. If you can find a way to built something in a way that is clearly different from the intent of the patent, or clearly used for a different purpose than the intent stated in the patent, then a patent is no longer applicable. This is the crux when an engineer is looking to get a patent on something he designed. Is it even worth it to pay for a patent? How protected am I going to be when I get it and how am I going to use the patent to earn my income if I do get it? And importantly, how easy is it for someone to get around. Because why even get a patent if its easily avoided.
            (And yes, this can be as stupidly simple as making something rotate rather than translate to achieve some effect, or even translate horizontally instead of vertically)

          2. Though 3d Systems currently builds filament deposition printers, the patent is for stereolithography, a process similar to formlabs’ printer. And the patent isn’t for the support structure itself, but for the process of generating it algorithmically and doing so as part of the printing process at print time. I could have sworn, though, that my dad was getting stereolithographed parts with support plastic in the mid ’90s. That may have had to have been done manually, though.

          1. I don’t think so. They could sell the printer, and leave it to the open source community to come up with a way of supporting the plastic in a fashion that doesn’t infringe on the patent. The patent seems pretty specific on the methodology used to generate that structure, so it should be possible to work around.

  1. Patents schmatents! Once we have 3d printer tech more widely diffused the internet will route around hardware patents just like software patents and intellectual property regimes can be bypassed.

    1. That’s part of the RepRap idea – have not one huge company, but many smaller, even private vendors. Some will fail (yeah, Formlabs is doomed), but for every head they cut off of the opensource hydra, two new ones will grow.

    2. These ‘with a’ patents are ridiculous. Yes, lawyer types, I know they have the law behind them. That does not make them right. Look at this one, make a weak spot to connect the product to the tray so that it is easy to remove “using a specific production method”. This has been done with injection molding for decades! For example look at the model kits that Pirtnac mentions. Really though.. all sorts of plastic consumer items are produced that way it’s just that the non-kit ones usually get snapped off at the factory so we don’t see the support structure.

      Regardless what the lawyers and judges say, applying a very old and pretty much universally used idea from one construction method to a newer one is not innovative. It’s obvious!

      1. You’d have a valid point, and you could possibly win with that argument. Patents aren’t supposed to be defensible if the only unique element is something obvious to anyone skilled in the art. However, a standard patent case budget is about a million dollars…if you win.

      2. I feel the difference between the injection molded kit parts and the stereolithography is that the stereolithography method is layer based, which mean each layer can cure separately. This is unlike injection molding because the plastic is poured into a mold and cures at once. The tapering of the entry points produce a thin piece of plastic that easily snaps off. The 3d printed supports can be less cured and thinner, and sort of pull off like velcro and yields an extremely accurate model after cleaning. Correct me if I am wrong, but that does seem to be viable sadly…

        1. I get what you’re saying, but it seems that the reason this isn’t done in injection molding is because it can’t be done rather than no one has thought about it. That is to say it’s a limitation of injection molding rather than any particular innovation on the part of 3D systems and that it would be obvious to anyone well versed in the art. Therefore not a viable patent.

          Not that I know anything about patent law, I’m just applying the arguments above to your statement.

        2. “If ya have to sand a burr, you must pay her.” Sorry, my best Cochran. Everyone that uses that snap tab method has to polish the lil tab burrs off for most production. Could be the shiny nickel in the pile. I think you have hit the nail on the head with the curing process. as well. Either way, soemone is getting rich over being a pedant. I think that would be a nice moniker change for Apple at this point: Pedantic Enterprises lol.

    1. 3D systems may posses a patent that is being infringed upon. It isn’t necessary that they have a current product that utilizes the patent in question. It isn’t uncommon for a company or person to file a bunch of patents that revolve around the same principle to make it more difficult for another company to produce a competitive product. Pattent-squatting really.

      1. …and this is part of the reason that the Home Automation industry is moving at a snails pace. We have the technology, but 30 years ago someone went and filed a bunch of patents and has sat on them thus whole time.

        The patent office needs to stop giving out patents that are too general.

        …at this point… …until someone does something truly groundbreaking, all the heavy lifting has already been done by the open-source community in regards to 3dPrinting.

        The government needs to get away from the idea of ‘I’ll take this machine, make a tweak to it, and call the whole thing my own.’

    2. Are you kidding me? The founder of 3dsystems invented stereolithographic printing. It’s their core product. Their FDM and other systems came later when they expanded in the market.

  2. When I spend a year of my life struggling to design a process, I would like to protect it. Don’t get me wrong, I also open source a lot of my work. In fact, I was one of the first to make a complete driver for the eadog LCD, and give it away. But my 2 year r&d and me spending a lot of my money on differential wing dynamics, stays mine, I will not open my research.

    1. and what if someone else had spent equal time and resources on finding out excactly the same, should they be barred from using that because someone else got there first?

      dont get me wrong the ideology behinds patents really is brilliant, for creators to be fairly compensated for their creations, unfotunetely that isnt the case in many modern patent disputes.

      many are based on public knowledge and many are held by people far removed from any actual work or personal investement in any particular patent.

      you also have patent squatting as done by most multi national tech companies, all desruptive effects that doesnt serve the actual ideology behind the patent system itself.

      1. But often times, that is not the case at all. SLA isn’t a new method at all. 3dsystems were some of the first to realize that this was a viable process and went through a lot of behind-the-scenes R&D to market a real product. Form labs could not have put nearly as many resources into the project; at the very least, they came into the design knowing that the general concept worked in one form or another because other companies had already developed similar technologies.

        I’ve certainly run into this situation before. This scenario has certainly happened to me on a number of occasions: you come up with a brilliant new idea, but it will take a lot of time and energy to develop a prototype to see if it’s even practical. You often simply do not have the time to risk trying the idea. Often times, what you end up doing it looking around to see if there are similar things that use the same concept. If there are, they’re successful, and there’s useful data to be had from those similar systems, then you are one step closer to deciding that the idea may be worth pursuing.

        The fact that someone else has actually already developed a working version of an idea often does present a very real advantage, and I can see that being the case here.

        1. all true
          (and i am not talking specifically this case here, SLA is a fairly specialized technology)

          but what happens when the knowledge it builds upon is public knowledge?

          shouldnt that also have a bearing on how far the protection of a patent goes?

          what i am trying to get at is that while the ideology behind patents is brilliant we really shoudl find a way to adhere more strictly to that ideal instead of creating a game out of who can capture the most first.

        1. Yeah, I’d have to agree with that. I’m no lawyer, but I’ve taken an IP class (one with a little more ground in the theory and economic reasoning behind IP protection) and gotten quite a bit of practical experience from my work. Personally, my take on patent law (whether it’s software patents or anything else) is that the basic problem with many patent issues really revolves around (or rather, has a solution in) changing the duration of the patent. The problem is that different markets move at different paces. There are certainly many industrial markets where I can see that 20 year mark to be quite reasonable. But when it comes to software and smartphones, most of the patents being issued won’t even be relevant in 20 years.

          In relation to more general law and economic theories, patents and copyrights exist to increase ensure the production of ideas, which are generally underproduced as they are virtually impossible to profit off of if it were not for government action. More generally, however, the government should encourage the production of ideas because they eventually become a public good and better society; patents need to make this balance between ensuring that such public goods are produced in the first place, while ensuring that later on they indeed become useful for society as a whole. Based on this logic, I think it’s quite obvious that a patent that lasts longer than the patent’s utility to society (in 20 years, “swipe to unlock” will be worthless as. . .we’ll probably have direct brain interfaces by then) should be terminated much sooner.

          I’m curious what others think–when it comes to software patents, like what’s going on in the smartphone market, would it seem much more okay if say some of the Apple’s disputed patents only lasted for 2-3 years (i.e., many of them would have expired by now)? After all, 2-3 years is significantly longer than the development cycle for most products in this area.

      2. oodain,
        You wrote:
        “the ideology behinds patents really is brilliant, for creators to be fairly compensated for their creations,”

        History of patents shows that the primary motive for patents was not to let the owner develop his idea, it was so that there is an end to keeping it to yourself–OK you have so many years to do something with this, then you HAVE to let others use the patent.

        Check it out.

  3. Lots of companies are doing weaker support structures to print new material on. I don’t see a unique idea in the patent anywhere. This all seems like common engineering knowledge that anyone with a degree would notice. But then again I’m not a lawyer. I guess it’s time I go to law school for patent law like the rest of my friends.

  4. I met the Form team and they really seemed to have their shit together. I don’t see why they can’t try to license. Form’s idea isn’t original so they must have known they were walking into a patent minefield. It would be hard to believe other companies don’t hold similar SLA printing disclosures.

    I have a love hate with patents. I love them because patents protect companies, but I hate them because they slow down innovation. I remember there was a kick starter to clone a makerbot part for part in china. It was never funded and I’m kinda proud of the DiY community for backing up the original creators. Unfortunately in the real world this rarely happens and usually the lower sticker price is what people base their decisions on.

    1. “Original creators”?

      Makerbot took existing RepRap designs developed by the open source hardware community, commercialized them (with very few changes), then went closed source.

  5. This one’s a tricky one. Unless I’m mistaken, 3dsystems was indeed a pioneer in the field (particularly in SLA), and it’s questionable whether or not someone else would have figured out the process or have gotten it working were it not for a lot of the initial research they did. This isn’t one of those BS software patents we’re talking about–it took a lot of R&D for them to figure out the process and some ingenuity to realize it was doable. We’re all used to freaking out every time some patent lawsuit comes up in the community, but remember that there is a line to be drawn and that there is obvious utility in having a patent system. If developing the technology for a real, innovative, physical 3D printing system also falls in the “throw up our fists at the system” category, then you may as well just get over it and say that you believe we should have no intellectual property protection whatsoever.

    It’s a sad thing–this company is very much a hobbyist friendly company, and it sucks that part of our community is getting hit, but I’m not sure if it’s entirely unreasonable here. If this makes it feel any fairer, from labs isn’t exactly a tiny hobby operation anymore, and at the very least 3dsystems isn’t trying to sue a tiny, I don’t know, 4-5 figure hobby operation

    1. Really? The initial idea as patented isn’t very complicated at all. It didn’t take any R&D to come up with that. Most of it is obvious and has been commonly used elsewhere forever (make the contact point between your support structure and product weak so it is easy to detach). You can see that in any injection molding factory, better yet, just go buy a plastic model kit.

      Did it take a lot of R&D to determine exactly how much to cure the connection point? Maybe but if so then how the heck did Form Labs manage it on just a kickstarter? Did they have access to all 3dsystem’s research data? I doubt it. Did they reverse-engineer a 3dsystem’s product? If so then that couldn’t that be handled by copyright? Is yet another patent where someone is just applying an old idea to a new technology really necessary in order to encourage this kind of R&D?

      1. Formlab had a large capital investment before the kickstarter. @Threepointone I agree that this is not a small hobbyist company because they got capital investors. They are making a product that competes with commercial products. I would think they would have done some research into patents but then again, I don’t think I would have thought of that.

        1. Sorry about that. If the patent in question is indeed support structures, then I’d agree that it’s a bit questionable. However, I have yet to see any formal announcement or legal filing detailing precisely which patents 3dsystems intends to dispute, and I’d imagine they need more than just support structure. It does seem like this is the patent being kicked around, but without a formal source and without having gone through their entire patent portfolio myself, I’m inclined to wait until I know for sure which patents are in question.

          I guess what I was saying was that 3dsystems certainly does quite fairly own many of the original SLA patents, and that the SLA process itself is most certainly not obvious. If any of their more core patents were violated, then I think this is certainly reasonable. I don’t think any of us can say in an objective manner whether or not SLA itself is an obvious technique at this point. Personally, I suspect it is not. More importantly, even if it were obvious, I’ve got a laundry list of reasons why I’d consider it too risky an endeavour to try (won’t the photoresist dissolve what I already cured? wouldn’t the quality be terrible given that the medium is liquid and convection occurs? is photoresist even strong enough to be useful?) These reasons represent why the ability of a small company to redevelop a seemingly simple idea does not directly imply that the value of the required initial R&D was correspondingly small: there was extremely little risk the second time around. You can be assured that if your redesigned prototype didn’t work, there certainly existed a solution to make it work.

          In the particular case of the patent on support structures, it certainly seems obvious now given what is typically done with 3D printing. However, it still is a decade old (I think?) and we have to remember how much things have changed since then. It’s important to also check the timeline; I realized the same issue with Apple’s “Siri” “patent” (turns out it had nothing to do with Siri and everything to do with the built-in search inside MacOS). In this case their patent was filed during the time when Google was coming out with Desktop Search, Microsoft had just announced Longhorn’s advanced search features (and already came out with MSN Desktop Search). Designing a better desktop search engine was all the rage then, and Apple simply found a little corner for themselves to squat on. What they did wasn’t particularly non-obvious. They were lucky, as I think that whole desktop search fad has passed, but it turned out their patent was useful in going after Android.

          In this case, it could very well be the same case, where 3dsystems simply filed a patent for the same support material idea for their own SLA technology. It could also be that they were the first to realize that support material was doable. I don’t know. Either way, remember how much we take for granted and remember that a decade ago most of us didn’t even knew what the heck 3d printing was, and many of these patents were filed quite some time ago.

  6. Going after Kickstarter seems a bit of a publicity stunt to me – they’re selling nothing, just acting as a payment processor. It could backfire as KS would surely see this as a major threat and throw some lawyers at it.

    1. Kickstarter collects a 5% fee, or $147,294.25 in this instance. If a project is illegal, should they profit anyway?

      Kickstarter claims they are not soliciting investments, not a store, and not a charity. When in fact they clearly incorporate elements of all of the above. Perhaps they’ve truly created a new class of entity, which needs imminent legal clarification. But more likely, they might as well be claiming the sky isn’t blue, they fall under an existing classification, and need to both observe its laws and assume some liability.

      While it’s a shame Formlabs is getting sued, I’ve been counting the days for Kickstarter to get a reality check, in the form of a legal challenge.

  7. All this talk made me start looking into the 3D Systems cube. If it’s a stunt then it’s working on me. I’m an engineer by day and I’ve built cncs, robotic arms, and even helped assembled my friends first gen makerbot. At this point I’m no longer interested in making a hobby out of tweaking my equipment (3d printer). Now I just want a good clean semi maintenance free tool arriving fully assembled. Is there a better solution than 3D system cube for less than $1500?

    I’m basing my claim on this of course.

  8. so let me get this right,
    they both ripped off a free design and they are mad someone decided to copy THEM???

    … and its about a reprap lol so its like the gene pool from one family was mixed into the other. /cough, whos the dad?

    1. I mean, that’s probably exactly what they’re doing. Doesn’t it make sense to you? Why go after some small guys with legal fees that will well exceed what you’re even losing from them? I actually followed a lot of these DLP projects, and all of these seem to have dead-ended (I can’t buy plans, parts, finished printers, or kits for them). I’d imagine 3dsystems concluded the same.

      What would you think if 3dsystems started a patent infringement case against a hobbyist tinkering with a DLP SLA printer at home for fun? Or a kickstarter project that raised only $10k, and can’t even defend itself with the money it raised? To me, it makes perfect sense that they’re doing it because of the $3m. If anything, they may be being a bit dangerously nice to everyone else, as I recall there being some sort of clause in patent law saying that if you take too long to enforce your patent, then you waive your right to protect it (it’s to protect against companies that deliberately ignore infringers until they start making massive profits, and then sue them to reap the rewards)

  9. In the event 3dsytems are offering competitively priced printers I have no problem with them using legal patents against those manufacturing products that violate the patent. Kickstarter doesn’t sell anything but a service, any action against them is like filing a similar action against a print publication over what an advertiser sells. Will enough members of the DIY community commit a mere dollar a month to help fight over reaching claims? Not that I’m saying it can be done that inexpensively, just that there is no commitment as such a low level, the party may be over.

    1. that is the problem, this patent provides them a near perfect monopoly on these types of printers, meaning no competition, meaning no need for competitive pricing. eventually as the number of SLG/DLP 3D printers being made by other people or companies starts to decline, the price of their printers will go up. they will claim the price increase is simply because of Supply/Demand, but the simple fact will be that they have a M$ style monopoly. (one of convenience of use)

      1. You’ve got some valid points. As do all the entangled parties. Which leads to a deeper set of honorable balances. There’s a flat, bedrock realm of “which human had an idea” and that’s a stand alone category with it’s detached existence. The Free&Open as in freedom.. community’s mores, both hardware and software trees are socially re-examining well- everything. It’s part of a movement to say a properly grandiose “WHY??” about our world. In Very Good Ways.

        The human expressing a *Unique* does/”should” have what’s often referred to as a creator’s “Moral Copyright” quite apart from patent or any other law.

        There’s a few companies here and there waking up to or always leading by example in “Honorable Ethics”

        The “Corporate Entities” which function in a Kleptocratic, compete on the UNETHICAL levels or just act so hostile as to be it’s own sort of dishonorable conduct? Ah, THEY are an example of “why” the “Free&Open” movement inherently disrupts their Oligarchic models. Do a search for “Kleptocratic Oligarchy” and apply that defined criteria to oh- Patent Trolls.

        That’s my current Social Hack. But- don’t trust “me” alone. Do your own fact checking.

  10. The issue with this patent is that it is too wide reaching and can be applied to almost any Stereolithographic 3D Printer that has any logic behind how it prints objects smaller than the printer’s full printing area. and getting around such a patent will likely make the cost of manufacturing anything using stereolithography rise dramatically. this patent essentially creates a Monopoly for 3DSystems on stereolithographic 3D printers simply due to the fact its too expensive to use any other brand of stereolithographic 3D printer and almost impossible to create and commercially use your own without manually creating every individual set of rafters by hand as part of your 3D model. (P.S. Obvious patent troll is obvious)(P.P.S I own a model car set that was created using a method that would be Considered infringing upon this patent, its from 1992)

  11. One issue I have with patents are that a company gets an admittedly good and novel idea and patents it, but then follows up every few years by patenting relatively minor upgrades. For 20 years no one else can use the core patent, so little R&D is performed. Then when the patent ends the competitors find that all the easiest (and perhaps obvious) solutions to the teething troubles are still patented.

    1. Monetary wise I see the need for patents, so someone doesn’t 1:1 copy your product and take all your potential sales, but it can severely hinder innovation and progression.

      Imagine what sort of incredible products (hardware & software) could be produced if you weren’t hindered by copyrights and patents…

    2. During the original 20 years anybody can develop and do R&D and patent “upgrades” to the original patent, not only the original creator. So lets say in your lab you are developing some upgrades on somebody else’s patent (since it is a patent you have everything you need to ‘rebuild’ the original design), you can patent any discoveries you make (and reference the original patent. That way after the 20 yrs are up, you have exclusive use of those ‘upgrades’ and of the original patents.

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