A new research paper investigates the claim that some 3D printer companies have violated open source licenses.
This topic has been discussed frequently on social media in recent months. In general, there have been claims by several Western manufacturers, which base their companies on open source principles, that certain manufacturers have improperly benefited from the open source intellectual property.
Concern was so high that Prusa Research founder Josef Průša wrote a long blog post about the situation back in March.
In the article, Průša explained:
”In the meantime, I’ve been receiving information about companies that have started to apply for local patents based on open-source development and trademarks (you’d be surprised how many of them have ‘Prusa’ in their name). About companies partially owned by state companies and institutions and using open-source code in their closed systems, thus violating licenses.”
I encourage you to read the full article to get his perspective on the situation. The story provoked responses from Bambu Lab, a strong and growing competitor, and the two have occasionally issued statements directed towards each other in subsequent months.
It seems that the research community has recognized this situation and has done some work to determine what’s actually happening. A paper entitled, “Patent Parasites: Non-Inventors Patenting Existing Open-Source Inventions in the 3-D Printing Technology Space” by Apoorv Kulkarni and Joshua Pearce examined the use of patents in this space.
The paper looked at three example case studies representative of the situation from the EU, US and China:
- an EU firm patenting the use of materials already in common use;
- a U.S. government lab patenting an open-source 3-D printer design
- a Chinese company patenting the basic building blocks of additive manufacturing that has long been in use in dozens of open-source 3-D printer designs.
The researchers said this:
“With the example case studies reviewed here, a new form of patent parasitism appears to be on the rise in the 3-D printing technology space. The most common method observed in the case studies involves (1) letting the open-source community innovate and develop a technical solution, (2) waiting until that innovation has been widely tested by the open-source community and in some cases even commercialized by an open-source firm, and (3) surreptitiously patenting the technology by hiding the core ideas in the claims while using a vague (and sometimes irrelevant) patent title and abstract to obfuscate any attempts for the open-source community to police it.”
They also write that a big part of the situation is China’s lax patent office, which apparently does not perform sufficient work to examine patent applications.
The researchers propose that the situation could potentially worsen the open source community that has provided the base upon which so many 3D printers have been developed by slowing innovation, encouraging monopolies, and creating “patent thickets”.
“The results of this review of inventions in the 3-D printing industry have shown that non-inventing entities throughout the world are attempting to patent/are patenting clearly open-source inventions already well-established in the open-source community and in the most egregious cases commercialized by one (or several) firm(s) at the time of the patent filing. There is substantial evidence of companies, including a U.S. government-funded research institute, patenting inventions that are not only pre-existing/prior art but also have been developed and used by the open-source 3-D printing community.”
I encourage you to read the paper and learn more details about their analysis.