Controversy at Creality Demonstrates a Problem in 3D Printing
Printed Solid has broken ties with 3D printer manufacturer Creality due to ongoing open source infringements. Why did this happen?
The Delaware-based 3D print reseller has supplied a variety of 3D printers, supplies, parts and accessories to the US market and beyond for around five years. Currently they handle several notable brands, including colorFabb, Ultimaker, Raise 3D, LulzBot, BCN, Mass Portal and others.
And up until Friday, they also resold Creality devices.
But that changed suddenly when Printed Solid declared publicly they would no longer market the China-based manufacturer’s machines due to infringements of open source designs used to build the Creality machines. This is quite unfortunate, as some of the Creality devices were very popular.
Printed Solid explains (sic):
"For the last year we have been working with Creality and selling their machines. We have been fighting with them to make sure they comply with Open Source licensing requirements and for awhile they were complying, even releasing their source code for the CR-10S and Ender3. When they were not in compliance we stopped selling their printers and waited till they would honor licensing. Once they did, we agreed to start selling them again...
Once again they have pulled backed and refuse to release source on the printers they are knowingly in violation of GPL including the new CR-X which we got in stock under the assumption they would be complying.
At Printed Solid we believe in community and Open Source. If someone releases their work under Open Source licensing then it is the communities responsibility to hold companies like Creality responsible for when they violate those licenses. So we will not replenish our stock anymore for Creality products."
"Fool us once, shame on you, fool us twice, shame on me and we are truly ashamed now."
Open source designs are increasingly the foundation upon which products are made. The public sharing of design information enables others to quickly leverage ideas to achieve significant benefits.
There are two scenarios for use of open source arrangements. First, if a design, say a 3D printer, is declared to be “open source”, then its design files must be posted publicly along with a suitable open source license. There are many to choose from, but most insist that if the design is improved, those improvements must also be posted with the same license. At the very least, the license will insist that uses of the design require attribution.
The second use of open source is when a design is incorporated into a larger assembly. For example, an open source hot end design is used in an otherwise commercially closed source 3D printer. In such cases, the manufacturer must abide by the hot end’s license, typically stating the source of that component’s design and pointing to its files and licenses.
In the Printed Solid scenario, the former is the case. Creality evidently claimed to market open source machines, and thus would be obligated to post their files to the public.
Kudos to Printed Solid for standing up for the principles of open source designs. But what is Creality up to here?
My theory is that Creality is finding itself under tremendous competitive pressure and has resisted publishing the materials to avoid “instant clones” made by competitors.
This is quite similar to the situation MakerBot found itself in many years ago. That company began as a fully open source operation, dutifully publishing all their design files whenever a new 3D printer version was released.
But that changed when the company attracted investors, who expected a significant return on their money. MakerBot found that their publicly released designs were being constructed and sold in Asia - as per open source practices. They could not survive as a company if every product was being sold for half price by someone else, so they switched to a closed source design and changed the fundamental nature of their company, much to the anger of their existing customer base. To this day they continue to be a closed source company.
But is this scenario repeating once again? If Creality makes an open source machine that others in Asia might quickly duplicate, possibly at lower price, what are they to do?
They could take the MakerBot solution, and shift to closed source units, but that might risk alienating many of their existing customers, much the same as MakerBot encountered.
Whatever the route chosen by Creality might be, this situation underlines a growing problem in 3D printer manufacturing: the race to the bottom.
There are today dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of basic desktop 3D printers being manufactured and marketed. Virtually all of these have essentially identical features and performance, leaving the only differentiating factor being price. Thus the race to the bottom.
Is this a good thing? I think yes and no. No, because many companies will die in the effort, being eventually out-priced by competitors and leaving their customers in a bad place. Yes, because this market consolidation will eventually result in far fewer manufacturers that will truly offer equipment at the final, rock-bottom pricing that we’re all waiting for.