Ridiculous: Government entrepreneur copies open-source 3D printing concept…and patents it
from lock-up-the-commons department
We talked about the importance of patent quality, and one of the points raised in our podcast discussion was that many companies feel the unfortunate need to patent something just to avoid someone else patent later and create problems. One thing we haven’t really discussed is that it actually actually ridiculously difficult for any project that wants to do something innovative and give it to the world, without patents. Because someone else might come along and patent it themselves.
This seems to be the situation that has now happened to Hangprinter. Hangprinter is a fascinating project aimed at creating an open-source frameless 3D printing setup that literally hangs in the air and is capable of building much larger things than a traditional 3D printer. From the start, the idea behind Hangprinter, from its creator, Torbjørn Ludvigsen, was to make it open source and freely available for anyone to use.
And, of course, sooner or later someone took advantage of it. UT-Battelle, a non-profit joint venture created by the University of Tennessee and the Battelle Institute to operate the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, apparently decided to step in and patent the fundamental ideas behind the Hangprinter. Earlier this year, they were granted US patent 11,230,032 for a “cable-driven additive manufacturing system”.
Except, as Ludvigsen points out, there is a ridiculous amount of prior art on virtually everything in the UT-Battelle patent, not just Hangprinter, but some other projects as well. Ludvigsen walks through how the patent drawings almost look like they were pulled from public Hangprinter images. For example, here’s an image from 2017 of the creators working on Hangprinter:
And here is an image of the patent filed a year later:
Or, here’s an image of the Hangprinter team building a tower with their Hangprinter, sent in early 2017:
And here’s a picture in the patent of a printer building a structure (in the case of the patent, it looks like a replica of the Colosseum 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 it open and free to the world.
The Hangprinter team started a GoFundMe to try and 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 would have to pay license fees to a tiny minority, the guardians of the stolen vital technology. Expansion and further development of Hangprinters will not happen unless the Guardians allow it. What should have become a lush forest instead becomes a single bonsai tree in a walled garden.
This is, 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 does not is not even considered. Here we have people who tried to bring 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) has effectively locked up the commons and blocked further innovation unless open source creators can muster tens of thousands of dollars to fight it.
It’s not good for anyone.
Filed Under: 3d printing, commons, hangprinter, open source, patents, rep rap, torbjorn ludvigsen