The patent system was originally intended to preserve the work and creativity of companies and individuals. When the system was first implemented in the U.S. in 1871, the number of patents the office received was a reasonable number that could be handled without much difficulty. Over the last decade, the flow of patents has become a flood, and the system has simply begun to break down.
As an example of the problem, if you include court costs, Apple and Google spent more on patents in 2012 than either company spent on R&D. Patents are becoming increasingly less specific, hoping to cover broader areas, leading to “patent trolls” effectively squashing innovation by threatening legal action against any individual or company that even brushes up against the edge of an approved patent.
3D printing has already started to have its own share of patent battles, including 3D Systems’ case against Formlabs, and as the field continues to expand, this sort of problem is bound to crop up more and more often. It is all but inevitable that patent trolls will begin to show their ugly faces in the additive manufacturing (AM) industry, and indeed this may already have happened.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has taken up the cause of protecting AM as part of its stance on protecting technological innovation and creativity. With the aid of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Ask Patents, the EFF has challenged six AM-related patent applications.
From the EFF website:
If there’s something that drives us crazy, it’s when patents get in the way of innovation. Unfortunately, we often don’t find out about the most dangerous patents until it’s too late—once they’ve been used to assert infringement. That’s why we were encouraged by the new provision of the patent law that allows third parties to easily challenge patent applications while those applications are still pending.
The patents challenged are as follows:
- Fabrication of Non-Homogeneous Articles Via Additive Manufacturing Using Three-Dimensional Voxel-Based Models
- Build Materials and Applications Thereof
- Method for Generating and Building Support Structures With Deposition-Based Digital Manufacturing Systems
- Process for Producing Three-Dimensionally Shaped Object and Device for Producing Same (Ask Patents request for prior art)
- Additive Manufacturing System and Method for Printing Customized Chocolate Confections (Ask Patents request for prior art)
- Ribbon Filament and Assembly for Use in Extrusion-based Digital Manufacturing Systems (Ask Patents request for prior art)
Hopefully the efforts of the EFF and other watchdog organizations will help keep AM from turning into the quagmire of litigation that is the mobile technology field. The patent system could still use a serious overhaul, but with the other pressing issues facing the country, it doesn’t seem likely this problem will be taken up any time soon.
Below you’ll find a clip featuring President Obama talking about patent trolls.