Tuesday, December 09, 2014

3D printing could make patents obsolete

When most people think of patents, they think "residual income", "Edison" and "Wright Brothers". Few if any ever consider the downstream effects on future innovators, you know, patent lawsuits for infringement, chilling effects on innovation from litigation threats and the like. The Founding Fathers put language in the Constitution for the protection of inventors and their works based on the assumption that inventors who get a patent will disclose their work so that other people can build upon their work.

For a closer examination of the intent of the men who wrote the Constitution, lets see what the relevant clause says:

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;" --- US Constitution Article 1, Section 8.

Think about it. When courts consider patents, most of the time, like you and me, they're concerned with whether or not the "inventor" has a right to royalties for his "invention". I have yet to read a case, any case, where the question before the court was, "Does this patent actually advance the sciences and the arts." Usually, the court asks a narrower, more subtle question: "Is there any prior art? Has this ever been done before?"

But there is something else the Framers of the Constitution had in mind. They wanted patents for the disclosure of the invention so that if the inventor dies, the invention does not die with the inventor. They knew that great inventions would create economic growth, you know, jobs. The goal was to ensure that the invention should reach as many hands as possible.

3D printing will enable the proliferation of inventions without patent protection in ways that we are just beginning to see. 3D printing is taking place all over the world, in many scales, too. From the micro to the macro, 3D printing is revolutionizing how we make things. Almost anything that is solid can be replicated using 3D printing.

Ironically, the patents relating to 3D printing itself have been holding the technology back. Many of those patents are expiring this year and analysts predict that the industry will explode going forward. 3D printing is not alone. In almost every industry, patents have been shown to slow down innovation because after the patents expire, the previously protected technology really takes off.

As the market opens up due to expiration of 3D printing patents, we will be witness to a new manufacturing revolution. Perhaps someday soon, someone with the power to do it will finally see a reason to abolish all patents so that we can all be free to innovate.
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