A recent press release came through announcing that 3D Systems has named Kickstarter and Formlabs in a patent lawsuit over a successfully funded stereolithography 3D printer. At first glance this could easily be shrugged off. Really, patent lawsuits happen all the time, and it is rare that they blow up to anything huge for either side, other than some bragging rights and some lawyer’s paychecks (see Samsung versus Apple for a counterpoint).
This patent issue has the potential to dictate a bright or dismal future for crowdsource funding websites, and, in turn, the potential of small, low capitol start-ups. Kickstarter (and similar sites) butter their bread by helping organizations that don’t have an massive amount of seed money get off the ground. By doing so, they not only help small business but also help to usher innovation to the limelight – essentially taking some of the thunder from corporations and giving it back to the little guy.
The lawsuit says, “Upon information and belief, Kickstarter is a funds raiser and selling agent of Formlabs and has offered for sale and sold Form 1 3D printers within the United States and within this jurisdiction of this Court via its website: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/formlabs/form-1-an-affordable-professional-3d-printer” - naming Kickstarter as a co-defendant. This is a significant blow to all crowdsourcing sites, as they (according to my interpretation) have been established as the vessel for the innovator, not the arbiter of potential patent infringements. If Kickstarter suffers a defeat (though even being named in the lawsuit will hurt their just-now expanding business) it will spell legal disaster for many, if not all, crowd funding websites. What it could spell for innovation is greater service charges, zealous scrutiny, and legal vetting (if deemed worthy), greatly decreasing the chances of the next big thing making it to market.
Beyond the doom and gloom for Kickstarter and a small, innovative 3D printing organization, this brings up a sensitive issue in the world of engineering: patents. I’m not the biggest advocate of locking away any ideas, but in a real world, patents are necessary. The problem is the antiquity of the stipulations these laws carry.
The brave new world is fast paced. It moves at lightening speeds compared to two years ago, forget decades or centuries past. Now, I’m not an expert in law, nor am I a patent holder of any kind, but integral problems exist in the current patent system. Though the patent laws were adjusted in the Patent Reform Act of 2009, they still have two major issues with me: the length a patent is held and accidental theft.* I’ll start with the latter.
The Formlabs/Kickstarter lawsuit says, “Formlabs attempted to deliberately shield itself from learning of the '520 Patent while it was aware of 3D Systems' patented stereolithography machines as demonstrated by many articles on the Internet about Formlabs' release of the Form 1 3D printer as having negative implications for 3D Systems.” The declaration then lists and quotes articles and editorials that featured Formlabs’ emerging start-up. The problem here, as is with a lot of law, is based on intent. 3D Systems says Formlabs tried to copy and feigned igonorance of the existing patent, while Formlabs will most likely claim that their tech isn’t infringing on the listed patent or that they did actually violate said patent accidentally.
How can a court (which most likely knows very little about anything in engineering, let alone stereolithography) decide what Formlabs intended? I really don’t have an answer for this dilemma. Unfortunately, this is the nature of our justice system – lots of gray to dance in, without ever receiving a definitive answer.
The other major issue with the current patent system, which is perhaps a bigger problem than the previous, is the length of time patent protection lasts. Currently, pending any obscurities or loopholes, a patent lasts twenty years. Visualize what a computer or cell phone looked like twenty years ago. Those patents are just now running out (unless the companies have previously stopped paying the upkeep fees).
Technology and innovation happen so quickly these days that a computer or phone is out of date by the next year, if not by the next fiscal quarter. Some might argue that it is legitimate to allow patents to last two decades because they are quickly rendered obsolete. The issue brings us back to the Formlabs/Kickstarter versus 3D Systems lawsuit. 3D Systems is suing over a patent they were issued in 1997, which was recorded at the U.S. Patent Office in 1994.**
My point is that a twenty-year patent on an innovative product is just too long. Things change too fast for a progressive technology to hold any value beyond five years. Hoarding minute details or concepts for twenty years is only going to stale the technology or stifle further progress. Situations like Kickstarter and Formlabs speak to the looming need for progressive patent reform and a set of laws and regulations that match the speed of our technology.
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*Update: These two gripes are beyond the obvious David and Goliath problem when it comes to pricey legal battles and lengthy court hearings involved with patents, as pointed out by Bruce Stenman, President of Lightsmith Inc.
**Update: It should be made clear that according to the patent laws, applications filed with the Patent Office after 6/8/1995 have a twenty year tenure from the filing issue date, whereas patents filed before have a tenure of seventeen years. The patent that 3D Systems filed in 1994 (issued in 1997) is set to last seventeen years, or until 2014.