E3D On Patents And Not Being Evil About Them

In our community it’s certain that there will be many people with very strong views about patents. It’s fair to say that the patents system is at times not fit for purpose, with such phenomena as patent trolls, submarine patents, and patent war chests doing nothing but leading it into disrepute. So it’s interesting to read the words of 3D printer hotend manufacturer E3D, as they talk about why they feel the need to patent some of their inventions, and how they intend to proceed with them.

The result is a no-nonsense explanation of why their work being reproduced by overseas competitors has brought them to this point, and in short: they’re patenting very specific inventions rather than broad catch-alls, they are making what they call a legally binding promise not to enforce the patents against non-commercial or academic experimenters, and they will continue to open-source as much as they can.

Will it work for them, or is it the start of a slippery slope? We can see why the E3D folks have taken this step, and we hope that they will continue to act in a responsible manner. If not, as those who have followed the maker-oriented 3D printing business for a long time will know: treading the line between open-source and closed-source can be fraught with danger.

24 thoughts on “E3D On Patents And Not Being Evil About Them

  1. Autodrop3d has applied an FRAND licence to the auto ejection technology to prevent a larger company from locking down the IP and preventing any one from using it like Stratasys. It realyl depends on what approach they use as this could be a good or bad development with E3D

  2. If they hold to their stated intent with their patents, then this seems to be a healthy use of IP protection. If only patent laws forced this behavior to be the norm rather than an exception.

      1. Is it really a problem if Albania or Suriname or Laos don’t respect our parent laws? Or maybe they don’t count when you say “everyone”. Do countries get to decide their own fate? Do we invade and conquer countries that don’t go along? Or do we punish their citizens for the actions of their leaders? How will you enforce your lofty goals?

  3. The first thing they’re complaining about is–

    > “Some people just want to do the manufacturing and selling for profit bit, without the inventing bit. That’s kind of an unfair move, especially when you don’t even have the proper manners to do the ‘making it’ part well. Certainly not when conditions of open source licenses are disrespected, images and content we’ve put a lot of effort into are taken, and trademarks like “E3D” are used to mislead folks into buying things that aren’t made by us.”

    … which is, of course, what patents were originally for.

    But how does a patent help against somebody who’s *already* violating a trademark and *already* violating copyrights? The knockoff guys aren’t going to balk at violating a patent. And it’s just as easy to stop imports that violate a trademark as it is to block imports that violate a patent, maybe easier.

    Anyway, it’s not like nobody had ever done that sort of thing before E3D started up. The world hasn’t changed much since they went into business. Did they somehow not know how things worked?

    Their other two reasons, widespread easy patent trolling and explicit tax favors for patented products, are just straight public policy failures. I guess you could say that it’s not reasonable to ask E3D to bear the effects of rotten public policy.

    … EXCEPT that pretty much everything E3D has done has relied on an ecosystem of other people’s open source work, going clear back to the RepRap project. E3D’s predecessors bit the bullet. They accepted the same risks of knockoffs, and they took the hit from the same bad public policies. Some of them probably did NOT try to build profitable businesses, precisely because of those very issues E3D is talking about. And a lot of them who DID build businesses did NOT make the choice E3D is making… and maybe failed because of it.

    E3D probably couldn’t be where it is today if those other people had gotten patents, and only allowed “private and non-commercial use”. E3D would have gotten bogged down in negotiating licenses and handling payments and dealing with this or that person’s weird conditions, before they ever got a business going at all.

    I’m not convinced that E3D is justified in unilaterally resorting to patents, in violation of prior norms community and practices in the community that spawned them. It smacks of pulling up the ladder for those who would build on their work, as they built on others’ work.

    It also smacks of “altering the deal”. The community they’re operating in has always made certain judgements in certain ways, and they seem to be usurping those judgements.

    I’ve always thought it was a community norm to try to buy open source hardware from the original creators… up to a point. If an idea has been around a while, and somebody rolls it up into some derivative with other meaningful innovations of their own, then maybe you want to start supporting that new person.

    I personally have made a point of buying stuff from E3D, and not ONLY because the knockoffs are usually shit.

    But how much consideration to give the original creator has always been the buyer’s decision, and it’s always fallen short of what patents offer. That norm gives the original inventor SOMETHING, but it doesn’t give them a 20-year veto on every giant system that happens to incorporate one small part they came up with.

    I understand that buyers don’t always really hold up their end of the deal. But it HAS always been the deal. Rewriting it after the fact isn’t so cool… and it IS after the fact, even if they only apply it to new products.

    1. An interesting take on it, though I can’t agree on the whole.

      For one thing how things work when you are a small company getting started with some good ideas is hugely different to being one of the giants of the field – nobody is in a rush to clone it, or worse create really shoddy knockoffs yet when you are just a minnow – you haven’t done all that work to make stealing the brand name profitable etc..

      Patenting and protecting a few details they put who knows how many hours and prototypes into to get to that point is very different from locking the whole lot in a box, and allowing experimenters to tinker is nearly open source anyway – E3D might become dicks with it, but their stated intent means they should be able to actually make enough money to survive and keep making great bits far in advance of most others in the field, while leaving people to innovate off their work… Really hard to argue against, though I hope any good innovations end up being produceable easily – which shouldn’t be that bad unless E3D choose to be dicks about it…

      As any opensource project that gets ripped off against the terms of the license through history has shown its pretty hard to really do anything about it less you already have huge funds behind you, even more so when its happening in foreign less friendly nations – legal shit and the open license rarely seem to work as smoothly as they should…

      I do think you have some valid points, but for now this seems like from an end users perspective nothing much will change, except you will actually get good parts when you order them, the innovators are more likely to get funded enough to keep innovating, and because of that the 3d printer tech you will get to play with even if you avoid E3D will improve… So as long as E3D continue to treat with the community in good faith its not the end of the world, just a shame its become needed.

    2. i think you hit the nail on the head. fundamentally, i find playing with my 3d printer to be a rewarding hobby. i appreciate the work that has gone before me, but my appreciation is just a feeling. most of the work that went into my printer was shared freely, done by hobbyists who did it because they wanted to do it. the work was its own reward to them. if E3D wants to make money on it, well, i don’t mind if they do…and when they make a product i desire i’m happy to pay for it! but i am not actually in favor of E3D making money. whether they make money or not doesn’t matter one bit to me. i’m in favor of the hobby and the accumulation of shared ideas and the ecosystem of vendors, *including the knockoffs*. so far as i’m concerned, when so much of this stuff is explicitly to be shared freely, knockoffs are part of the package. if E3D doesn’t want to be part of that community of sharing, then i don’t give them the same gratitude that i give people who *are* a part of that community. but again, my gratitude ain’t worth much.

      i just look at the software i give away for free…i don’t resent it. i enjoyed writing it and i’m tickled that people find it useful. once, it even got re-packaged by someone else who got more credit than i did. hooray! it’s free software, that’s how it happens. if someone is trying to make money off of free software, well, whatever, but they don’t get loyalty from me just because their path to riches is the same thing as my hobby.

      1. This is how I feel about it too. When I decide to share something, I usually make it a public domain dedication. I have no expectations of any credit, money, recognition, nothing. As a result I am never disappointed. People seem to go out of their ways to disappoint, so the only way to get out unscathed is by never having any expectations in the first place. By the same token, no one can complain if they run into trouble with something they received 100% free and without strings attached.

        1. This is all well and good from a software/embedded/electronics standpoint, where no of minimal capital investment is needed in prototyping, and prototyping is broadly similar to small production runs, which use the same supply lines as bigger ones. don’t get me wrong, I get that production runs in the 10k range is different, and delivering to average joes is different than selling bare dev boards on Tindie.

          Mechanical design/development is different cookies. 3d printing doesn’t scale well, neither does cnc-machining (although better). general tolerances can work fine for proto runs, but they can make stuff expensive. if you want cheap and accurate there is no substitute for tool steel injection moulds. which come with capital investments of 10k’s for simple stuff.

          running a company in mechanical parts, even in medium production runs, requires significant capital investment. up front, and you have to go for the intended production run sizes or you will not get the price you need. if you want to do something new, you need to invest again, not only in the prototyping but in the production phase as well.

          E3D occupies a niche place, where their customer is not an average joe, so doesn’t require the polish the public does, but also does not necessarily grasp the complexities of mechanical design either. so it seems weird to a lot of users that an E3D heater block costs €30, while a knock-off can go for as low as €2, for what seems to be the same thing. R&D burns money like a fire in a bank vault, that money needs (in most cases) to come from somewhere

          1. Exactly, if I put some hours of my time into something and opensource it all I might loose out on is whatever value others would have given me for that time – but I was obviously doing it anyway. But if you set up production runs of something, that is buying a house expensive (and more) particularly if you do it with quality as a high priority, so you need to actually be able to sell your parts, and not have the reputation ruined by shoddy knockoffs etc..

            Also I seem to recall E3D make their stuff in the UK, and its all actually made properly – so higher wage bills to feed the staff, and being actually quality enough to work right means higher costs involved in making it properly…

            So for now when it comes time to upgrade or build a new printer I think E3D would be my choice as it stands, but if they do turn into dicks with this change then I find pastures greener elsewhere..

  4. I really like the idea of a good intentioned company patenting things so others don’t patent them to stifle an open ecosystem, but you know what tends to happen? The company gets bought by someone bigger without any such morals and those patents get used in exactly the way they were against in the beginning. That’s where patent trolls come from. Patent trolls aren’t inventors.

    So while I like the idea, if there’s no dedication to the public domain upon purchase or hostile take over by another company, it’s a lie or a foolish dream.

    The points about building on the backs of others to get to where they are in a position to patent ideas is extremely true, and it’s enough to convince me to never buy anything from E3D from this point forward.

    As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Keep open systems open.

    1. Without some such nuclear option set in stone from the beginning, they’re only rasing the price of acquiring the patents and painting a target on their backs. Maybe that’s the end goal. Trying to get bought out by the big companies.

    2. Well at the least it staves it off for a couple of years.

      The problem is now, that the patent system as a whole seems to assume that there is no prior art unless it’s patented prior art. Therefore there is risk of things known and put in practice for several years getting patented by EvilCorp, and it’s extremely costly and difficult to fight. Less a problem of not wanting to share than fear of getting sued for using your own work. As such it’s a few thousand bucks worth of legal insurance.

  5. Patents and open-source are kinda the same thing, right? Most people choose viral attribution licenses at minimum, so the licensing fee being exchanged is street cred or warm fuzzies or maybe even a little fame. For patents, you’re also required to reveal the novel secret of how your widget works, and the licensing fee is hard cash. Both types of licenses can open the violator to legal action, though damages are a bit easier to calculate for a patent.

    I think it’s all kinda broken. I’ve had multiple products of mine outright copied and sold at scale, or derived with no hint of attribution or inspiration. It even happened this week. But I’ve long ago learned to let it go. I greatly dislike the patent system, it wasn’t designed with the current rate of progress in mind. I’d rather leave it be and go design new things. Why use a system I hate to announce how pissy I am about getting copied.

  6. “patents against non-commercial or academic experimenters, and they will continue to open-source”

    Well, open source is commercial, in the sense you are free to sell a product as long as you respect the license.

    So this statement is pure crap.

  7. Once the new european court system is in place, they will rule that software patents are legal in Europe (using the “as such” or “technical effects” tricks), without the European Court of Justice (CJEU) having a say on patent law:


    Time to get out of the woods folks.

    Plus the new court will be super expensive if you want to fight a troll, 20.000EUR of court fees compared to the current 165EUR we have here in Belgium (other european countries have court fees of 80EUR to 700EUR, except for Germany where it is way more expensive).

    So small companies will be screwed, as lawyers fees will also be on the rise compared to the current situation (which will also be on the rise because they have to work extra to meet the tight deadlines imposed by the court so that the whole case is closed within 12 months), and refundable fees are too low to get your money back if you are in your plain right.

    1. I hope you are joking, but its hard to tell.

      No clone beats the original E3D V6 hotend. I have around 30 clones in my drawers and none of them work as reliably as an original V6. I’m not sure why it is so hard to replicate the functionality of the part, given the amount of drawings available, but alas.

      Save yourself some time, money and aggravation, don’t buy E3D clones most are garbage.

  8. The problem with open source is that it’s made a certain group of people think that engineers have to work for free, and any anyone who seeks to earn a living out of the work they do and love are evil. The result is that when a company like e3d are reasonable on how they seek remuneration they receive hate from that certain group. I hope they are able to continue and thrive. They make an excellent product. I hope the community do not force their hand to be more protective over what they have created.

  9. “Opensource hardware is engineering using an artist’s business model” – Logxen

    If you want to be opensource you need to be able to accept that it is going to be copied. It doesn’t mean you need to support it…or like it…but to be truly opensource it needs to be able to be copied, sold, manufactured and used by anyone.
    There is no guarantee that you will be profitable and the likelihood if your project does well is that it will be copied.
    Attribution is nice…donations even better.
    Back when I first got into Reprap the attitude was “well…by the time we are copied..we will be onto something else”. The plan was to move faster than the clones. That seems to have changed.

    E3D isn’t the first opensource project to have these issues…and not likely the last. I remember when reifsnyderb got harassed for just saying that the clones of his hotends were subpar and the cloners were stealing his name. It is very true. The number of counterfeit “J-heads” was unreal…and they tended to function like crap. Then when E3D came out…people continued to sell E3D clones with the branding “jhead” which was not only false but intentionally piggybacking on the good name of a very solid hotend (I have some of these which are over 5-8 years old and still working).

    Ultimachine was one of the first who really got cloned hard (RAMPS 1.4), Jhead, Prusa, Smoothieboard…we all have experienced the issues with cloners and how to provide to an ecosystem which not only doesn’t respect your IP/License…but very rarely respects you as an individual. Often you are treated as a servant instead of a giftgiver….and merely asking the community to support your work (or the devs in general) is reacted to with “why would I spend more money on something? It’s opensource…the devs are charging too much and making unrealistic profits.” Meanwhile, the clones are sold for less than the cost of parts…and somehow they don’t seem to have issues with tariffs seeing as their prices didn’t raise when the US added that whole 25% thing. Add to that that they have little to no development cost, almost nonexistant support (typically the community offers support) and at times components which are not up to par and you can see why it is almost impossible to compete…but somehow…some of us still do it.

    No matter how bad it gets…nothing is worse than having patents on things that people taught you how to do for free.

    Support Opensource Hardware and the devs who believe in it. Most of them have donation links on their site. Even if you don’t buy their product…throwing a few dollars now and again really does make a difference. The life of an opensource dev is typically not glamorous….usually it is spent fighting trolls. Keep them in coffee.

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