We've been pointing out for a while that one of the reasons why advancements in 3D printing have been relatively slow is because of patents
holding back the market. However, a bunch of key patents have started expiring
, leading to new opportunities. One, in particular, that has received a fair bit of attention was the Formlabs
3D printer, which raised nearly $3 million on Kickstarter
earlier this year. It got a ton of well-deserved attention for being one of the first "low end" (sub ~$3,000) 3D printers with very impressive quality levels.
Part of the reason the company said it could offer such a high quality printer at a such a low price, relative to competitors, was because some of the key patents had expired, allowing it to build key components without having to pay astronomical licensing fees. A company called 3D Systems, however, claims that Formlabs missed one patent
. It holds US Patent 5,597,520
on a "Simultaneous multiple layer curing in stereolithography." While I find it ridiculous that 3D Systems is going legal, rather than competing in the marketplace, it's entirely possible that the patent is valid. It just highlights how the system holds back competition that drives important innovation, though.
3D Systems claims that Formlabs "took deliberate acts to avoid learning" about 3D Systems' live patents. The lawsuit claims that Formlabs looked only for expired patents -- which seems like a very odd claim. Why would they only seek expired patents? Either way, the lawsuit claims that all of the articles that highlighted how the expiration of patents made Formlabs' printer possible meant that Formlabs must have known about its patents. Again, not quite sure the reasoning makes much sense here.
But what's really crazy is that 3D Systems isn't just going after Formlabs... but Kickstarter
as well. You can read the whole filing here
. 3D Systems is claiming that because Kickstarter takes a cut, it's equally liable.
Upon information and belief, Formlabs and it sales agent Kickstarter knew or
should have known about, or were willfully blind to, 3D Systems' extensive patent rights in the
area of three-dimensional printing and stereolithography, including but not limited to 3D
Systems' U.S. Patent No. 5,597,520 covering improved methods of stereolithographically
forming a three-dimensional object by forming cross-sectional layers of an object from a
material capable of physical transformation upon exposure to synergistic stimulation, by virtue
of their sales of machines touted by Formlabs as using "stereolithography (SL) technology,"
which is a technology invented and extensively patented by 3D Systems and its founder Charles
The accusations against Kickstarter are really ridiculous -- suggesting that it encouraged infringement:
Upon information and belief, Kickstarter contributes to the infringement of the
'520 Patent by offering to sell and selling within the United States the Form 1 3D printer which is
an apparatus for use in practicing patented processes of the '520 Patent, constituting a material
part of the invention, knowing the same to be especially made or especially adapted for use in an
infringement of the '520 Patent, and the Form 1 3D Printer is not a staple article or commodity of
commerce suitable for substantial noninfringing use.
Upon information and belief, Kickstarter knowingly or with willful blindness
induced and continues to induce infringement and possessed specific intent to encourage
another's infringement by, or was willfully blind as to the '520 Patent and with respect to, its
activities and Formlabs' activities described above.
Most bizarre of all? 3D Systems claims that because Kickstarter encourages "hacker and maker" projects, it's knowingly encouraging infringement -- as if "hackers and makers" are only about infringement. This is a really cynical attempt to tie those words to a negative connotation where clearly none is meant.
Upon information and belief, Kickstarter had specific intent to infringe the '520
Patent by virtue of its agency, business and sales arrangement with Formlabs, which had actual
knowledge of the '520 Patent and/or was willfully blind to the existence of the '520 Patent as set
forth in the allegations above.
Indeed, in Kickstarter's own Guidelines as to "Project must fit Kickstarter's
categories" at http://www.kickstarter.com/help/guidelines?ref=footer, under section 02, under
"View Design and Technology requirements," Kickstarter is actively encouraging "hacker and
maker" companies to make 3D printers for Kickstarter to sell, stating: "Not everything that
involves design or technology is permitted on Kickstarter. While there is some subjectivity in
these rules, we’ve adopted them to maintain our focus on creative projects: D.I.Y. We love
projects from the hacker and maker communities (weekend experiments, 3D printers, CNC
machines) and projects that are open source. Software projects should be run by the developers
I've read those paragraphs over a few times and I still can't see what the issue is there. How is supporting hackers and makers somehow evidence of "intent to infringe"?
Either way, 3D Systems has now permanently placed itself into the category of companies not worth ever doing business with. Suing Kickstarter just because a competitor was selling a better, cheaper 3D printer and you got jealous? Shameful.