Friday, 6 June 2014

Makerbot Patents and the Open Source 3D Printing community


I was just about to move on, thinking the message was clear and enough was said on the Makerbot Patents, trust and treatment of the Open source 3D Printing community debate, when a Google+ Post popped up from Eddie Kay . (One man's defense of MakerBot's patent filings. ) What do you guys and girls think?) That pointed to a post here -

I'm all for defence and debate, it made me document a few more things below on this topic -

I'm not 100% sure if the poster Dragons_Blood and Eddy Kay on G+ are the same person? feel free to let me know, I would be happy to discuss this further if needed.

I just had to reply on this, here on my blog - The points and my reply in blue to them below -

From the points on -

Dragons_Blood - “I just wanted to let my voice be heard. I'm not a huge fan of Makerbot but I don think that what they are doing is not exactly their fault.

RH - Who’s fault is it? Is someone holding a 3D printed gut to their heads? Using a broken system is not an excuse.

Makerbot has 2 choices here. Either patent these designs which aren't already patented, or allow another company to do so. “

RH - Other choices include, releasing the exact same documentation you use for the patent out into the public domain as Prior Art, and then happily manufacture these designs. This can be done directly or by allowing the Patent application to lapse, then it becomes Prior art and no one can then patent, but anyone can use the idea / method.

“If another company patents these designs, then they can prohibit Makerbot from ever using them on any of their future 3d printers. However, if Makerbot patents them, they ensure that another competitor (i.e. 3d systems with cubify) doesn't patent it and hold them out of the market. 

RH - See above about public domain and prior art.

- Most of the open-source and maker community is not concerned about companies fighting over patents, infringements and IP, that’s their choice for constantly going down that route.
- What would have made all the difference is if Makerbot made a statement saying they will not go after anyone in the open-source community, or designers where inspiration for these types of ideas also appeared. The fact they have patented so many interesting aspects of Home 3D printing that are also being developed in the open-source community and that they have not engaged at all with that community on this aspect, means they want ownership of patents covering these things, and they didn’t want to highlight what they were doing ‘in the background’. Many companies face this ‘big business problem’ that’s fine – it’s clear that Makerbot is not going to stop down that route, they have stated many times now “we need strong patents” – the concern is over what they intend to do with them and that they have not been open with an open-source community they once held closely at the heart of their business model.

-          RedHat (another very big company) also built on Open-source – Do indeed make a Patent Promise -

-          Over on Google+ if you search you will find an this post from  who claims he offered to assist Bre Pettis (Makerbot) over a year ago with similar type of promise to the ‘community’ – I find it a real missed opportunity that was not taken up or used as a guide for a similar statement from Makerbot – if it had, this would not have caused such a bad feeling of betrayal and brocken trust within the open-source/RepRap community and Makerbot’s patents.

Jan's G+ Post - "Dear +MakerBot , here's an idea for you to ponder. Take a look at The Red Hat Patent Promise. To put it in simple terms, we at Red Hat apply for patents, mostly out of defensive reasons in a world of patent trolls. But we are fully aware that we must defend the freedom of Open Source and Open Innovation. So we have the legally binding promise that we will never use our patents against developers of Open Source software. It's not the perfect solution, but it is definitely better than your current approach of filing patents and not declaring what the community can do or NOT do.

A year ago I offered +bre pettis my help in working on a similar approach for Makerbot, this however never happened. I am still ready to help and hook you guys up with my network. I think you could have avoided a lot of negative vibes with a patent promise in the Red Hat style."

-          Pledges like the RedHat Patent promise not to go after open-source contributors to a project / technology are already being used by companies that need to have strong patents for legal defence, but also do not want to alienate a community that supports them and can often lead to ideas worth patenting.

-          Without this sort of statement, what are people to think? How will Makerbot use their power and Patent arsenal? For or against an open source community or open-source company? Who knows, but waiting to see is going to be too late.

If that were to happen, it would be very difficult for MakerBot to do anything about it. 

RH - Companies design around patents all the time, and produce more innovative products in the process, also producing more IP that can then be opened up or kept secret, whatever works for you.

I highly doubt that Makerbot plans to use these patents to profit off of, or keep anyone from entering the market. They are doing it simply to protect their ability to use these currently unpatented designs in the future. “

RH - Why would you assume that? One of the only reasons to have a patent it to get some leverage from it, by making someone else afraid to go near your patented method in-case they say you infringe. Or to attack someone (a competitor doing quite well in the market, but not well enough to defend a big legal battle). And then also to have a patent armoury as a final card to play if someone comes after you.

“Right now they are all free to use, since there are no patents on them. However, if Cubify (3d systems) came along and patented them, they could hold MakerBot ransom. “

RH - Ransom, Threat, Stalemate, stand-off, war, stranglehold, limiting innovation that's what patents have come to stand for. You can decide to patent almost anything, if you have enough money and think it will benefit you.

“Sure Makerbot could go to the courts and say that these designs were created by someone else but then that other person may be required to either patent the design or allow someone else to. They would be stuck in a catch 22, where the patent would either belong to the company that filed the patent, or the original filer, who may not even wish to file a patent for the design. 

RH - The Patent system was supposed to stop things in the public domain being patented in the first place; the scenario above will always appear if companies decide to gather as many patents in an area as possible with the intention of patent litigation in the future.
Most patents are vague for the very reason of letting some later process in the courts or by expert testimony win over an infringement claim, or so simply sink the other party in legal debt before the case is finished.

I think Makerbot is getting too much heat for just protecting their future business model. Until we see them actually sue someone for using these designs, I think we should let them be.

RH - It’s too late once they sue a growing open source company - who will already be on their radar - like Printrbot, Ultimaker or RepRapPro for Patent infringement, what they could have done is make a Patent promise not to go after these types of open-source companies in a similar way to how Red-Hat handled their growth. That’s the true missed opportunity to unite a now big company like Makerbot with an entire (and very smart) community to forge trust, rather than shatter and divide it.

RH - That takes true vision and courage, Bre Pettis could have pulled it off if that’s what he wanted to achieve with Makerbot and the wider 3D Printing community. That’s what I'm personally disappointed about.


Other posts have appeared over the last week on the Makerbot Patent/trust storm, including some high-profile sites shining a big spotlight on the debate.

Cory Doctorow Posted over on BoingBoing - It's way more balanced than many posts on this subject and raises some fair points for debate, unfortunately I think we have seen the direction Makerbot has decided to take, so we may never see them reach out to build back any trust with the Open source community. And as Cory states, head over to Adafruit to buy a LulzBot TAZ 4 open-source #RepRap 3D Printer 

Even Adafruit themselves do not seem to be able to decide if they want to stock Makerbot/Stratasys products.

John Biggs on TechCrunch posted The Next Open Source Battle Is Being Waged In The 3D Printing Industry
John does mentions Red Hat, but unfortunately not the point about a patent promise I talked about above.
Makerbot finally released a statement, (here on TechCrunch) it's bland sees right past the issues of trust and duplicity with the 3D printing community. 

The arguments could easily rage on back and forth, If Makerbot only want to focus on the Quick-Release Extruder - Members of the community have highlighted extruder designs that have the bistable spring implementation posted to Thingiverse as early as 2011 "by MiseryBot, published Mar 19, 2011" Not quite as "slick" but it does have that key "bistable" bit. Makerbot, I feel you are now on your own.

Plenty of other comments and views are also being aired all over on various forum's and blogs, 

Jeremie Francois Posted his thoughts and opinions here

The sun is shining, and I have real 3D printing to do, so the next Blog post will be a return to all things RepRap. Promise.

Thanks for reading, it was rather a lot of text.



  1. I wonder if Bre Pettis ever believed in Open Source, or whether it was just a means to an end ($$$).

    A lot of people say they "love Open Source", when what they mean is they love getting free stuff, but not giving free stuff back.

    1. Rather looks like that was the case.

  2. An important thing to point out is how patents work in their respective region, in Europe a patent needs to have "news worth" unlike the US where this isnt a requirement.

    Also the argument that 3D Systems would do something to prevent Makerbot (stratasys) isnt that simple cause if you look closer 3D systems owns quite a big chunk of Stratasys.

  3. This is an issue that Makerbot should carefully handle. I think pointing out how patents work in various region is more important to tackle about. Great information!

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  4. "releasing the exact same documentation you use for the patent out into the public domain as Prior Art, and then happily manufacture these designs. This can be done directly"

    What is the best way to release the documentation "directly"? In my experience releasing documentation for prior art via the internet is not always the best medium. Do you have any suggestions?

    It would be awesome if the US government created an open source patent office for this purpose.

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  6. Anyone can file a prior art claim. It would probably take you an afternoon of your time.

    “As someone who had been working with auto-levelling on the Kossel Pro, this was a very rude surprise. In a nutshell - Auto Levelling is The Next Big Thing for repraps.”
    “Sure enough, the patent was filed 20+ days after Steve Graber had published his video demostrating probeless auto-levelling.”
    “It is therefore vitally important that community developed improvements do not fall under Makerbot's (or any other company's) patent portfolio to be used at a later date to clobber the little guys.
    Fortunately, as one of our Google Plus commentator pointed out, anyone can file a 3rd party prior art submission to the USPTO with regards to pending patent applications. The instructions can be found here, and I just did that for this patent tonight:

    “This goes on to illustrate the importance of sharing and publishing your work with the community, so that when needed, we can establish an online trail of prior art. The cheapest way to defeat this is to not let the patents be granted in the first place, and submitting a prior art notification to the USPTO before the patents can be granted is probably the best course of action (warning, IANAL). We at OpenBeam have not been doing a very good job with sharing our thoughts and designs and ideas, but that will have to change, to safeguard against such corporate abuse of the patent system.”

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  9. RH - See above about public domain and prior art. ...

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