In September 2021 we announced our updated IP Policy along with our Patent Pledge – here’s a reminder of that pledge:
- Patent only exactly the very specific things we really invented. Not file the broadest, widest patents that block people from also contributing to technical progress for our own financial gain. We want to encourage invention and progress not hold it back, so we just want to make sure we cover those very specific inventions that are actually novel, so we can keep the invent > invest cycle going.
- Make a legally binding promise to never enforce our patents against anything done privately and non-commercially, or against academics conducting experiments, that kind of thing. If you’re someone who wants to see more E3D products, and more technical progress, then we’re all wanting the same things.
- Keep open-sourcing things wherever we can: there’s so much we have that’s about to come, and we will all benefit if we can let you design cool things around the new hotness we’re going to be bringing. (Trust us, it’s going to be pure fire.)
So, how has that been working for us over the last year? Here’s a summary in a nutshell.
1 - Patenting things takes ages.
It’s not for the feint hearted. You have to commit, be in it for the long-haul and you have to be lucky enough to be able to invest in it both financially and with your own time. We appreciate we’re in a fortunate position here.
2 - The patent landscape in 3D printing is changing, and changing fast.
Take a look at this chart:
3D printing-related patent applications filed, by year - data up to early 2019
Source credit - IPlytics
Although this chart finishes in early 2019, the trend certainly doesn't and we expect somewhere between 35-40000 3d printing related patents to be filed during 2022. That's several thousand, every month. That's a lot.
Before 2011, the FDM world was restricted in its progress largely due to a patent most of us will be very familiar with, granted to Scott Crump in 1986 – and resulting in the amazing success of Stratasys over the subsequent years. Since the patent lapsed in 2011 (and you can see this reflected in the filings data above) interest and innovation in 3D printing has skyrocketed. Whilst many of us created, shared, iterated together, there are also thousands of individuals and companies working on protecting their inventions for their own use.
What does this mean for us? And by us, we mean not just E3D, but us, the passionate hobbyists, creators and makers.
It means we have a dilemma. Our closing statement in our IP update one year ago included this statement: ‘Open Source is not dead at E3D: we just have to make sure we’re able to hold our own against those for whom “open source” was never even alive in the first place.’
This still holds true and will continue to do so. But, in our ever decreasing ‘open’ 3D printing world, the limits of what we can actually develop are becoming ever narrow.
Imagine if only 2% of those patents go through to ‘granted’ status – a scenario which can take around 4 years. That would mean that this year alone, around 500 new granted patents would land in the 3D printing world. Only a handful might relate to FDM printing, but one thing is for certain – we all have less room to be creative.
3 - That sounds like a terrible thing.
We agree – it does. So how do we tackle it?
Firstly of course we updated our IP policy a year ago and have been selectively filing useful, novel, inventive patent applications, in line with our patent pledge above. We’re even more certain now, one year on, that this has been the correct course of action.
Secondly, we need to take a more proactive approach towards patents that we believe are unjustifiably inhibiting progress. Check out the basis, from the US constitution, of Patent law: (US Constitution Article 1 section 8, clause 8): ‘To Promote the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts’.
Sure, we’re not in the US ourselves, but patent law worldwide is aligned to this principle.
Patents that do not uphold the progress of science and ‘the useful arts’ (what about the useless ones?!) are a thorn in everyone’s side, and we want to use our position as industry leaders to be able to open up the market. We’re currently doing this in 3 ways:
- Offering IP advice – we’re already trying to assist some Davids versus their own Goliaths. We don’t pretend to be the answer to everything but we’ve built up a lot of expertise, and we have a lot of external expert support, which we want to be able to use to aid others.
- Challenging patents and patent applications. Definitely my personal least favourite thing to be doing, but when done with thought and with the objective of advancing FDM printing for everyone, we believe this is the correct thing to do.
- We will continue to open source our own designs, wherever is practical to do so. This is not new, but simply a reiteration of our patent pledge. A design that’s been patented, or has IP around it, can still be open sourced. There are ways to protect intellectual property, own designs, whilst also sharing them and their use. Whilst we need to remain profitable, and to keep that invest-invent cycle going (see infographic!), it’s in everyone’s best interests to enable innovation, not to restrict it.
The Invest => invent cycle visualised on the left.
- Encourage others to share their own designs and inventions where it is practical to do so. There is no point in just focusing on our own policy. Whilst we are market leaders, we are also one of many. Carrots are better than sticks and we strongly believe it is possible to find solutions that work for everyone without having to make formal challenges to IP, whilst enabling progress. There will be less investment overall in R&D if we all have to spend a ton of revenue on expensive lawyers (sorry lawyers, we do appreciate you, but everything in small doses).
”That’s a big ask: what’s in it for the IP owners?”
Good question. From our own experience, the design patent for V6 (see below) gave us the confidence to know that we could enforce it if and when needed, whilst choosing to encourage, support and drive the growth in 3D printing over the six years that have passed since the patent was granted.
We differentiate ourselves from the multitude of those clone products through reliability, quality, affordability and performance.
Reliability; quality; affordability; performance: these are the four pillars of E3D product development. What we’ve learnt in recent years, and after viewing way too many bar charts for our own good, is that even strong pillars need very solid foundation, and in the 21st century some of that foundation mixture needs to contain IP to get it to really stick.
In next year’s annual update, my hope is to be able to show the results of some of the objectives we’ve stated above. Over the next 12 months another 40,000ish patents will be filed with a 3D printing theme of one kind of another: perhaps together we can make a real difference to the size of that narrowing window of creativity.