MakerBot Files For Patent On A Design Derived From Work By Its Community

from the sharing-is-good dept

As Techdirt noted a couple of years ago, patents have been the bane of the 3D printing world, holding it back for years, possibly decades. Now it looks like patents have reared their ugly head again in this world:

In a stunning display of madness, makerbot industries files a patent application on a mechanism clearly derived from content created by their users. What's almost worse is the article they wrote praising the invention, presumably while they were filing the paperwork.
MakerBot is one of the key companies in the low-cost 3D printing market. It was founded in 2009 and based its first model on the completely open RepRap design. However, in 2012, MakerBot moved away from its open source roots, claiming that it needed to make this shift in order to build a long-term business:
We are going to be as open as we possibly can while building a sustainable business. We are going to continue to respect licenses and continue to contribute to the open technology of 3D printing, some of which we initiated. We don't want to abuse the goodwill and support of our community. We love what we do, we love sharing, and we love what our community creates.
Most of the community seemed resigned to accepting that explanation, and have continued to post designs under various licenses to MakerBot's Thingiverse site for others to use and build on. In the case of the mechanism referred to above, the Replicator 2 extruder upgrade, the license employed is CC Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-BY-SA). It's a liberal license that allows people to do pretty much what they like with the design, provided they give attribution and pass on the same freedoms to any modified versions. But there is one important caveat:
No additional restrictions -- You may not apply legal terms or technological measures that legally restrict others from doing anything the license permits.
That raises the question whether a patent on the physical object derived from a design released under CC-BY-SA constitutes an additional restriction. Independently of that, there's also the issue of prior art. MakerBot's own blog post on the new extruder notes that several people contributed to the mechanism over a period of time:
Thing #42250 "Replicator 2 Extruder Upgrade" by whpthomas, is one of these very useful designs. It's based on an extruder mod from Thingiverse superstar emmett, who based his design on one from another star user, whosawhatsis.
Although prior art ought to ensure the patent was not granted, we know it doesn't always work like that. But even if MakerBot succeeds in gaining and holding on to patents derived from designs posted to its Thingiverse, it is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory unless the company issues a statement that the patent is purely for defensive purposes, and offers an appropriate license for people to use. If it doesn't, the community's trust in the company, already strained by the move away from open hardware, will almost certainly be gone. That's particularly regrettable given the company's origins, and the following speech from 2012 by company co-founder Bre Pettis on the advantages of sharing, transcribed here by Hack a Day:
When we started MakerBot, we knew we were going to be open source hardware. We were inspired by Arduino, and we were open source software nerds. So, we knew the idea if we could make it and share it, we'd get more back from it. And I think this is something we learned as kids, that sharing is good, that if you share something you get more back from it, but we forget this as adults. So, with open source hardware we're back to that. When you get a MakerBot, you're not just getting a machine, you're getting the knowledge of how it works. You're getting the information about everything that puts it together. So if you want to modify it, or if you just want to learn about it, if you want to hack it, you can do it.
Unless it's been patented by MakerBot, of course...

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2014 @ 2:08pm

    Re: Improvements

    The Makerbot post claimed to have improved on the community design.

    In which case the SA clause in the license prohibits them patenting it, and requires them to allow others to use the design and improve on it.

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