Nov 3, 2015 | By Kira

Intellectual property law and patents are a double-edged sword and a highly touchy subject in the 3D printing industry. While in many technological areas, patents are seen as encouraging innovation, preventing competing companies from simply ripping off each other’s inventions. However, there is a growing body of evidence that when too broadly applied, intellectual property law (IP) actually stifles innovation.

Nowhere is this clearer than in 3D printing—though the technology has been around well over 30 years, many believe that high profile patents have deterred new companies from spending money and resources on innovation, due to the fear of being sued by patent holders. This philosophy flies in the face of the open source and DIY/maker movement, which thrives precisely when freedom of and access to information is granted, allowing users to build on each others knowledge, pushing innovation while creating low-cost consumer alternatives. In fact, scientists have found that open source 3D printing actually has a high rate of return on investment in scientific research, making science cheaper and more accessible across the board.

Dr. Joshua Pearce, open source advocate, found that open source 3D printing is hugely beneficial to the scientific community

An outspoken advocate for open source innovation and the future of 3D printing technology (and the same scientist who made the high rate of return discovery), Joshua Pearce, a materials scientist and engineer at the Michigan Technological University, wants to put an end to patent abuse, particularly as it refers to 3D printing materials innovation. Although high profile 3D printing companies have already launched major lawsuits pertaining to their 3D printer parts and technologies (see Stratasys vs. Afinia and 3D Systems vs. Formlabs), he fears the materials sector is next.

“Already the number of patents related to 3D printing is growing at a disturbing rate as weak innovators hire lawyers to attempt to raid the public domain,” he told “If the trolls [companies that attempt to enforce patent rights far beyond their patent’s actual value] are successful, innovation in 3D printing could be stalled for another 20 years and companies waste money on lawsuits rather than engineering and innovation.”

3D Printing Materials You Can't Print, via Thingiverse

Determined to stop this from happening, Pearce devised a unique, open-source algorithm that can determine the obviousness of 3D printing materials, making it difficult, if not impossible, to patent 3D printing materials in the future. Indeed, the 3D printing materials industry is growing at an exponential rate, promising exciting new applications for 3D printing technology. Pearce’s goal is to ensure it stays that way.

“Although the algorithm may be useful for materials scientists to develop new 3D printing materials, its real strength is that it makes the use of any known material or combination of materials obvious,” he explained. The whole point of a patent is that it cannot be applied to obvious inventions—only to the truly innovative. If the algorithm can successfully prove that a ‘new’ 3D printing material has already been used before, it will prevent any overly broad patent using vague, generic, formulaic and combinatorial claims.

Though the original algorithm was posted on Thingiverse as “3D Printing Materials You Can’t Patent" back in 2013, Pearce’s most-up-to-date research, improved by the extensive comments left on that Thingiverse page, was published in the academic paper A novel approach to obviousness: An algorithm for identifying prior art concerning 3D printing material.” The paper breaks down the algorithm and presents two case studies: first, the algorithm is used to narrow the search for 3D printable materials with specific properties (which is particularly useful for enterprises who want to commercialize new 3D printing materials, as well as consumers needing a 3D printing material not yet available on the market), and second, to probe the obviousness requirements of patents.

Pearce’s research has been committed to open-source innovation in the 3D printing industry for years now. In 2013, he and his research group developed the RecycleBot, a homemade open-source device that recycles milk jugs and other recyclables into usable 3D printing filament. Along with other RepRap 3D printers, he sees the RecycleBot as an essential tool in the democratization of 3D printing and 3D printing materials, eliminating the cost barriers of feedstock, and allowing prosumers to experiment in producing their own 3D printer materials—though of course, that kind of experimentation will only happen if the fear of patent trolls has been lifted.

Though the rampant IP lawsuits in the 3D printing industry have yet to reach the absurd levels of the smartphone industry, for example, they pose a serious threat to innovation. Pearce’s ‘novel approach to obviousness’ algorithm is a promising method for stopping ‘patent trolls’ in their tracks. “Although this study does not fix our broken patent system -- it is a start,” Pearce told “Both companies and makers will be free to print what they want without infringing on generic, overlapping and overly-broad patents.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Aaron wrote at 11/4/2015 12:04:28 AM:

It would be useful to mention the definition of patent trolling. A "patent troll" files a broad patent (or lots of them) with no intention to commercialize. They simply lie in wait (like a troll) for someone else to do the work, then sue them or demand large licensing fees.

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