Monday, May 20, 2013

Patents vs 3D printing

While watching YouTube today, I came upon an ad for a 3D scanner. As the ad extolled the virtues and features of the scanner, I was impressed with how versatile scanners have become. The scanner in the ad could adjust for albedo, metals, and ambient light. It could produce a precise model of the scanned object as a computer file. The resulting computer file could then be shared.

Combine that scanner with a 3D printer and you get a 3D copier. Any shape you want to copy can be copied with a 3D printer and scanner. The innovative potential for this process is unlimited.

Over the last few months, a group of enthusiasts have been building, copying, sharing and perfecting a 3D-printed gun. I watched the headlines of this story over weeks to see the gun evolve from a concept to a working gun that can shoot a fair number of rounds before it breaks down. With a little finessing of the materials, it will eventually become a reliable weapon over time. The collaborative effort to improve the gun will eventually overwhelm any single gun maker in terms of capacity, precision and cost.

The network effects of 3D printing are starting to appear. As one object after another is copied through 3D scanners, each object will have a corresponding file. Once the CAD file is created, the file is shared and modified, over and over again. With each set of iterations, improvements will emerge and become dominant in the design of new copies. Iterations that don't work, or don't work as well as the best iteration, will be discarded in favor of a better working copy.

Each scan yields complete specs, materials and designs for an object, or, a new invention.

If the purpose of the patent system is to disclose inventions that would otherwise be kept secret, there is really almost no comparison to the 3D copier. In fact, some patent holders have been suing 3D printer manufacturers to stop them from making the printers unless their particular invention is blocked from printing. Existing patent holders already see the threat to their businesses from 3D printing.

This is just the beginning. Copyright is intended to encourage people to create works of art - film, audio and books - yet, technology has supplanted all that and more. 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Peer to peer file sharing is replicating and distributing books, audio and video by the terabyte. If that is what has happened to digital copies of creative works in just a few years, what will happen to patented objects?

In the debates over patents, there is very little discussion of the downstream effects of a broad patent. The system seems almost entirely bent on bestowing immense grants of power to just one inventor. The burden of evidence for the patentee is light since the patent is presumed to be valid. The burden to the defense is very high as any challenge in court requires clear and convincing evidence of prior art. Defense against patent suits, usually initiated by patent trolls can run into millions in costs. This could slow down 3D printing and scanning, but it won't stop it.

With the advent of 3D printing and scanning, simultaneous invention becomes a much more common occurrence. Independent invention of new and novel devices will become more common. But the human desire to share new discoveries and inventions often precedes any desire to acquire protection for an invention. This has been proven time and again by inventors who choose not to get their devices and ideas patented.

3D printing and scanning provide an almost perfect model for disclosure of inventions. I believe that 3D printing and scanning will prove to be far more efficient for disclosure and use of inventions than the patent system. Will we really need a patent system anymore when 3D printing  and scanning becomes commonplace? I don't think so.
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