from the locking-up-the-commons dept
We’ve been talking about the importance of patent quality, and one of the points made in our podcast discussion, was that many companies felt the unfortunate need to patent something just to avoid having someone else patent it later and create problems. One thing we didn’t really get to discuss about that is that this actually makes it ridiculously difficult for any project that wants to do something innovative and donate it to the world, without patents. Because someone else might just come along and patent it themselves.
That appears to be the situation that has now happened to Hangprinter. Hangprinter is a fascinating project to create an open source frameless 3D printing setup that literally hangs in the air and is able to build much larger things than a traditional 3D printer. From the beginning, the idea behind Hangprinter, from its creator, Torbjørn Ludvigsen, was to make it open source and freely available for anyone to make use of it.
And, of course, sooner or later, someone took advantage of that. UT-Battelle, a non-profit joint venture set up by the University of Tennessee and the Battelle Institute to operate the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, apparently decided to step in and basically patent the core ideas of the Hangprinter. Earlier this year, they were awarded US Patent 11,230,032 for a “cable-driven additive manufacturing system.”
Except that, as Ludvigsen points out, there is a ridiculous amount of prior art on basically everything in the UT-Battelle patent, not just from Hangprinter, but from some other projects as well. Ludvigsen walks step by step through how the patent drawings almost seem like they were drawn from public images of Hangprinter. For example, here is an image from 2017 of the creators working on Hangprinter:
And here is an image from the patent filed a year later:
Or, here was an image of the Hangprinter team building a tower with their Hangprinter, sent out in early 2017:
And here is an image in the patent of a printer building a structure (in the patent case, it looks like a replica of the Coliseum in Rome.
Either way, it’s pretty clearly the same basic thing. But now it’s under patent, even as the creators tried to make this open and free to the world.
The Hangprinter team has launched a GoFundMe to try to challenge the patent, but it’s an expensive process. As they note, this is an unfortunate turn of events:
With the patent in place, we’d have to pay license fees to a tiny minority, gatekeepers of the stolen vital technology. Expansion and further development of Hangprinters won’t happen unless the gatekeepers care to allow it. What should have become a bountiful forest instead becomes a single bonsai tree in a walled garden.
This is, yet again, the unfortunate result in a world where the default assumption is that every concept must be “owned” by someone, and where the idea of a public domain or commons is not even considered. Here we have people who tried to contribute something wonderful and useful to the world to make it a better place… and now they have to deal with this mess where a government contractor (even a non-profit one) has effectively locked up the commons and blocked further innovation unless the open source creators can scrounge together tens of thousands of dollars to fight it.
That’s not good for anyone.