How Patents Have Held Back 3D Printing

The purpose of the intellectual property system that we have is to promote the progress. When there is strong evidence that certain elements of it hold back the progress, it seems like something that should be explored. Glyn recently wrote about the plans to make 3D object plan files available on the Pirate Bay. In that post, he pointed to a great interview with Michael Weinberg from Public Knowledge, who had really been at the forefront of getting people to think about the legal consequences associated with 3D printing. However, there was also one interesting side note in that interview that didn’t get nearly enough attention. It’s that development and innovation has been held up for the last couple decades — not because the technology wasn’t available, but because of key patents that are apparently needed to build 3d printers. Those patents have started (but aren’t entirely set) to expire, leading to the sudden interest and growing affordability of such printers.

We’ve seen this before, but here it’s a modern example: work simply wasn’t done on many of these efforts in part because there was no competition. And, in fact, there are still a few patents that really do hinder things, and this is a problem. Considering just how much good these 3D printers can do — especially as they provide more power, do multi-color, and a variety of other features, it kind of makes you wonder just how much we’ve lost by having tons of researchers just sitting on their printer projects out of a fear of getting sued.

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