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Formlabs In Settlement Talks Over 3D Printing Patent Lawsuit 57

Posted by samzenpus
from the working-it-out dept.
curtwoodward writes "Formlabs raised nearly $3 million in a month for its new Form 1 3D printer, which uses stereolithography to make precise models and other physical objects out of photoreactive liquid polymer. But 3D Systems — the publicly traded company founded by the guy who invented that process — sued the startup for patent infringement. Formlabs recently announced that it would start shipping its pre-ordered Form 1 printers, and that was no coincidence: the two companies quietly entered into settlement talks in early May, and hope to have a deal done by September."
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Formlabs In Settlement Talks Over 3D Printing Patent Lawsuit

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  • legit patent suit? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by D1G1T (1136467) on Monday June 24, 2013 @03:13PM (#44095307)
    We are so used to seeing stories about patent trolls suing over some obvious extension of existing technology "on the internet." Is this one of those rare cases where a patent holder is using patent laws as they were originally intended?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by i kan reed (749298)

      Yeah, it is, but at the same time, it feels like the legitimate intent of those laws is still doing more harm than good. We could, in theory, be facing a revolution(I don't personally think so because engineering is complicated), and instead we'll get the complete and utter inability to refine the new technology since only one organization is allowed to do so.

      • by Anonymous Coward
        I don't see the harm. At a minimum, using the 3D printing tech will be cheaper than existing methods of prototyping. If it's not, no one will use it.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Except that with more players it becomes cheaper, and more feature rich. Monopolies have no economic incentive to improve.

          • How about establishing the market and being the leader when the patent expires? Give people a reason to upgrade? Make some fucking money? Don't be as dumb roman_mir; there are plenty of incentives to improve. This isn't a coal mine, where one rock is very much like another.
          • THe incentive is for the guy thinking about revolutionizing an industry, not to lower prices.

            Put another way, patents arent there to create cheaper ideas, but newer ideas.

        • by barc0001 (173002) on Monday June 24, 2013 @06:40PM (#44096773)

          You seem to forget your history. Look at airplanes. The Wrights had patents and then this happened:

          "In 1906 the Wrights received a patent for their method of flight control which they fiercely defended for years afterward, suing foreign and domestic aviators and companies, especially another U.S. aviation pioneer, Glenn Curtiss, in an attempt to collect licensing fees. Their legal threats suppressed development of the U.S. aviation industry for several years"

          Things got so bad, the US Government had to step in and basically forced them and the Curtiss company to license patents in a patent pool arrangement since by 1917 almost no new planes were being built anywhere in the US and they were desperately needed for the war effort.

          Just think where General Aviation would be today if the Wrights hasn't used their patent as a bat to keep everyone else out of the industry for a decade and a half.

          • What, you mean things would somehow have been better than "first flight to moon landing in 70 years"? Because that's already pretty damned good.

            Those cursed Wright brothers! Trying to profit from their invention! Screw them for creating a working machine and then expecting to control the design!

            • by barc0001 (173002)

              "Because that's already pretty damned good."

              Ah yes, why try for better when we already have good enough?

              "Trying to profit from their invention"

              If by profit you mean "monopolize" then yes, they were trying to "profit". Do you honestly think if their licensing fees on their patent were anything close to reasonable that the state of general aviation at the opening of WWI would have been so bad the government had to step in and say "Hey Wrights! FUCK OFF with your bullshit, we need planes and we need them yes

          • by smithmc (451373) *
            Or, maybe Curtiss et al could have just paid the damned license fees instead of trying to cheap out. As you indicate in your quote, the Wright Brothers weren't trying to keep everyone else out of the industry; they just wanted to be paid for the use of their invention. That's what patents are for, i.e. to help foster the spread and use of new technologies via the profit motive.
            • by barc0001 (173002)

              Instead of trying to "cheap out"? The proof's in the pudding. Nobody was licensing it, never mind just Curtiss. Nobody thought they could afford to and build a plane for a profit. You know how we know that? Because nobody built any planes!

              "That's what patents are for, i.e. to help foster the spread and use of new technologies via the profit motive."

              Yes and the Wrights were being so *fair* with their patent licensing prices that the government had to step on them because a war had broken out and nobody

      • by geekoid (135745)

        No, they are doing more good overall.
        They just completely fail with software. Don't confuse the software abuses and trolls you here with the entire industry. It seems bad because rarely is the good news reported. How many troll cases have their been in the last year? a dozen? maybe 2 dozen? vs the 1000s and 1000s of valid cases and patents.

        " refine the new technology "
        The patent system is designed to allow just for that. If you have a widget, And can patent that widget with an addition feature.
        That is simpl

        • by Anonymous Coward

          No, they are doing more good overall.

          As we don't live in a society without patents, there is *zero* evidence of that. You can't just make a law that restricts people's freedoms based on unproven beliefs, and that's exactly what patent law and its ilk are: unproven.

          • by St.Creed (853824) on Monday June 24, 2013 @04:03PM (#44095733)

            Actually, there were times and even now, places, where patent laws aren't upheld as strict as in other places.

            And usually, they do pretty well as long as they have to catch up. Once they've caught up, they suddenly find themselves with no-one to copy from, but a lot of people looking hungrily at their latest inventions. And suddenly they discover patent laws.

          • by TheSkepticalOptimist (898384) on Monday June 24, 2013 @04:43PM (#44096075)

            Being ignorant of something does not mean its harmful.

            What exactly is "unproven" about patents doing more good then harm? What, just because you don't like them they are obvious harmful? Your ignorance is more harmful then patents.

            You claim that patents restrict someone's freedom? So you believe then that its OK for someone to steal another idea and make money off it when someone else spends the time, effort and money to create the idea? You think the world is going to run on the honor system the moment patent and copyright laws are abolished? What a insanely stupid thing to believe.

            Yes, there are many patents that are not just worthy, and I agree there is a huge issue with the patent application and granting process. The patent system needs reform for sure.

            However patents themselves were ACTUALLY created to allow someone to invent something and then have it protected from unscrupulous people that would otherwise simply steal the idea and profit off it for themselves. Patents also actually publicly disclose the invention so that another person or company could build off them, provided they enter a partnership with the original patent holder. That could include licensing, royalty, or even agreeing to merge the ideas so both can profit off the end results. It gives the "freedom" of the person that invented the idea to decide how to proceed with it. The opposite of a patent, by the way, is a trade secret in which a company does not disclose in any form the invention and hope their competition is no capable of discovering how the invention works. It's a pretty much dead concept because even the most complicated system can be reversed engineered, but imagine how much innovation would be stifled if all companies worked off the idea of trade secrets and every company had to build something from scratch without any chance of cooperation or partnership.

            It is simply not valid to assume that someone has a right to build off or refine an invention without entering a partnership or cooperation with the original inventor. And under MOST circumstances both parties will find some way to work together that benefits both of them. It's companies like Apple that abuse patents that operate under the premise of wanting to destroy their competition by holding a larger patent portfolio they refuse to cross license. But even then I would argue it forces companies like Google to out-innovate to compete rather then just building off of another idea. So even the premise of constant refinement through free and open invention is a fallacy.

            Finally, patents are not mandatory. Nobody forces you to have to file a patent, so NO freedoms are being restricted here. I can't stand ignorant statements involving "Freedom" because it misses the point that someone has the right and freedom TO protect their content just as much as freely offer it to the world. And you can freely choose to invent something and offer it to the world as public domain however you have absolutely NO right to expect or assume compensation or even acknowledgement of being the creator of the invention. The world just doesn't work that way, there is ALWAYS someone looking for the easy way to make money. Even Open Source was created to protect acknowledgement of the original inventor of a piece of work and prevents another individual from "closing" it to profit off of someone else's idea. So even in the benevolent world of Open Source you still do not have total freedom to rip someone off and profit from their invention.

            • by Rockoon (1252108) on Monday June 24, 2013 @08:09PM (#44097113)

              So you believe then that its OK for someone to steal another idea

              Your argument that ideas should be property is circular because you have, right here and without justification, declared that ideas are property.

              You will find that in your search for a real justification instead of this bullshit circular one you just tried to sell us, that you will learn the history of patents and the original form that they took here in America.

              Patents were addressing the problem of trade secrets, of closely guarded manufacturing processes. The natural order of things is that if you have come up with a better way of manufacturing something that you keep it a secret, and if you are successful at keeping it a secret then you enjoy a large advantage over your competitors.

              The observation that its both true that its hard to keep secrets and that society doesnt benefit from secrets is obvious. The justification for patents is that you no longer have to try to keep your manufacturing process a secret, that the government is willing to grant you exclusive rights to it for a limited time, but this service is in exchange for public publication of your process. You still have liberty and can choose not to patent your process, but then you run the risk of a competitor spying on you or independently coming up with it themselves.

              But what we have today is a situation where not only are manufacturing processes patented, but also features of the products that those processes make. One-click, rounded corners, and so on.

              You see that the justification for manufacturing process patents doesnt justify these new types, for these new types cannot be kept secret and in fact are by definition only valuable when they arent a secret and are displayed openly as features of the product. The public doesnt win when the government protects these new forms of patents, its quite the opposite; the public loses when the government protects them.

              • The observation that its both true that its hard to keep secrets and that society doesnt benefit from secrets is obvious. The justification for patents is that you no longer have to try to keep your manufacturing process a secret, that the government is willing to grant you exclusive rights to it for a limited time, but this service is in exchange for public publication of your process. You still have liberty and can choose not to patent your process, but then you run the risk of a competitor spying on you or independently coming up with it themselves.

                This is completely true.

                But what we have today is a situation where not only are manufacturing processes patented, but also features of the products that those processes make. One-click, rounded corners, and so on.

                But this is false. Aside from the fact that you're referencing a design patent on aesthetic ornamentation, which is a different animal altogether (and more like trade dress), manufacturing processes were not the sole domain of the original patent act. Rather, as with the current 35 USC 101, the Patent Act of 1790 granted patents for any useful "art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement therein" [ipmall.info]. Machines were absolutely patentable, even though once sold, they c

            • Anyone remember when the only phone modems you could connect to the telephone system had to be leased from the Bell Telephone system. And remember when 2400 Baud was accepted as the theoretical maximum rate of data transmission over twisted pair? And remember that if you wanted a really cool phone, you could get it in one of several colors or really push the envelope and get a princess phone?
            • What exactly is "unproven" about patents doing more good then harm?

              Simple: There is no real evidence that they are beneficial in this modern age; that's it. There are very, very few countries today (if any) without some form of patent and copyright laws, and the countries with extremely lenient patent and copyright laws are vastly different from our own for numerous unrelated reasons.

              You are not entitled to a monopoly simply because you can't figure out how to monetize your ideas, or at least, I don't believe it should be that way.

              So you believe then that its OK for someone to steal another idea

              You cannot "steal" an idea.

              It is simply not valid to assume that someone has a right to build off or refine an invention without entering a partnership or cooperation with the original inventor.

              Sure it is. Som

          • by jythie (914043)
            Keep in mind, patents came into being in order to deal with specific historical problems and became so prevalent because countries that had strong patent laws did better then ones with weak or no patent laws. Sure there are times where they get abused or need to be rebalanced, but to say that their value is unproven is willfully ignoring the historical reasons they exist in the first place.
      • "... it feels like the legitimate intent of those laws is still doing more harm than good."

        Feeling that way does not necessarily make it so.

        Compare countries that have limited protection for patents (like the U.S.) to countries that historically have not (e.g., China). Which did more innovating during that period? The conclusion that patents are beneficial to society is inescapable.

        (Before someone argues, please note: even now, most of the "innovation" coming out of China is still designed in the United States and Europe.)

        Having said that: of course there have been situations in which pa

        • by kwbauer (1677400) on Monday June 24, 2013 @04:34PM (#44095999)

          Not agreeing or disagreeing on the patent side of things but I think that China had some other issues going on that might have something to do with their level of innovation. Instead of risking starting a flame war by suggesting that Chairman Mao's policies might have had something to do with innovation, especially in the technical arena, I'll just let the honest reader ponder that possibility quietly.

          • "Instead of risking starting a flame war by suggesting that Chairman Mao's policies might have had something to do with innovation, especially in the technical arena, I'll just let the honest reader ponder that possibility quietly."

            Well, I wasn't trying to suggest anything that specific. Only that it is well-known that even limited protection for what is mistakenly called "intellectual property" was completely non-existent in China for a long time, by design. I think it is pretty obvious that their loosening of the screws in that area is one of the things that has led to their economic improvement.

          • by smithmc (451373) *

            Not agreeing or disagreeing on the patent side of things but I think that China had some other issues going on that might have something to do with their level of innovation. Instead of risking starting a flame war by suggesting that Chairman Mao's policies might have had something to do with innovation, especially in the technical arena, I'll just let the honest reader ponder that possibility quietly.

            Absolutely the Communist Revolution in China stifled innovation. But what about the period between 1789 and the Revolution? How innovative was China during that period, vs. the United States?

      • by jeffmeden (135043)

        Yeah, it is, but at the same time, it feels like the legitimate intent of those laws is still doing more harm than good. We could, in theory, be facing a revolution(I don't personally think so because engineering is complicated), and instead we'll get the complete and utter inability to refine the new technology since only one organization is allowed to do so.

        Do you? People poured money into the kickstarter for Form1, and they did the right (according to patent law) thing and entered into a licensing agreement with the patent holder, in order to offer the technology to their customers. If 3d Systems had refused to license it and instead just taken them to court to seize all their revenue, that would have been the "complete and utter inability to refine the new technology" since Formlabs would have gone out of business. If Formlabs had a "refined technique" th

    • by stenvar (2789879) on Monday June 24, 2013 @03:23PM (#44095393)

      The basic 3D Systems patents have expired or are expiring within less than a year. They have some later patents, but they are not essential. Since Formlabs hadn't started shipping anything when 3D Systems filed their suit, this was also a bit of a fishing expedition, since they really couldn't know what, if anything, Formlabs was infringing.

      This is some last gasp effort to hold back the tide of low cost competitors a little longer. I'm not sure whether that makes them "patent trolls", you have to decide that for yourself.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I was just thinking the same thing. 3D systems was around since the mid '80s - I remember them doing some demos at CAD conferences. If they made a mistake, it was not to sell out or partner with a giant company when it became clear that the ramp up was taking longer than they thought.

    • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Monday June 24, 2013 @03:32PM (#44095471) Homepage Journal

      Is this one of those rare cases where a patent holder is using patent laws as they were originally intended?

      It's almost a trick question. If we break the Clause into its two parts:

      purpose: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts

      and policy: by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries

      then we can analyze it better. In this case very few people have access to this type of 3D printer. Through the use of Kickstarter, the developers at Formlabs came up with a business model and manufacturing capability to get these things manufactured and into people's hands. In almost all cases the recipients will invent other things using the 3D printers. That sounds like what the Founders envisioned as the desirable way for Society to proceed.

      Now, then, the patent (monopoly grant) could stop them. It can also be used to funnel some of their money to the people who sued them. Both cases would be consistent with the policy part of the "Copyright Clause".

      If the Internet has taught me anything, it's that ideas are a dime a dozen (humans are a gregarious, clever bunch) and execution is 95% of any product success. Cheap communication changes the way a society functions in many ways, none of which were clearly anticipated by the Founders. None of them intended their document to last this long either (and in many ways it hasn't, often for the worse).

      Back to your original question, the most common current interpretation of the Constitution is that it's a document that grants powers, and any named excuses for those powers (or limitations thereof) are just rhetorical flourish. I'm not sure if that's original intent of its interpretation, but the Courts clearly found that in Heller and McDonald. So, I think the answer to your question is a resounding 'yes'. But also one that should be slated for Amendment after centuries of practical experience.

      Unfortunately, the other practical experience is that the Copyright Clause makes the wealthy wealthier, and they control the political machine, so I don't expect such an Amendment would ever pass with the current government.

      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        Now, then, the patent (monopoly grant) could stop them.

        It would not "stop them" it would just require them to buy the 3D printer from the patent holder.

        To answer the original question. Yes, I think this is a proper use of patent law.

        • by jythie (914043)
          And even then, it would only require people buy printers using that specific technique from the patent holder for a few more years.
      • by smithmc (451373) *

        If the Internet has taught me anything, it's that ideas are a dime a dozen (humans are a gregarious, clever bunch) and execution is 95% of any product success.

        Execution requires ideas, too. Not all execution is created equal; the differences are in efficiency, cleverness, economy, etc. all of which require good ideas to achieve. That's why things like manufacturing processes are also patentable.

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      it was analyzed some time ago that the patent was relating to making the part where it connects to support material weaker(so to snap off easier).

      the basic process idea isn't under patent anymore.
      though, imho, it could have been argued that improvement to have been inherently obvious to the process if/when you have the option to make some parts weaker so in my opinion the patent isn't valid as such..

      it may be a novel idea by itself, but when taken to account that it should be a novel idea to a person famili

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        oh and forgot to add. if the patent is indeed that support thing, then it's quite understandable that they were able to reach some settlement since formlabs could have sold the product without that feature in their slicer(the sw that makes the moves for their laser).

        of course, it's such a feature that someone else could have done in alternative slicing sw. that's what patent guys don't like about open firmwares..

  • by nimbius (983462) on Monday June 24, 2013 @03:26PM (#44095425) Homepage
    3d systems, the patent holder for both the process and the hardware that in fact realizes the process, has been doing this since 1986. their polymer, conveniently termed a "resin" on the Form 1 website, seems like nothing more than a creative attempt at skirting patent law. Looking at the 3d systems CubeX or ProJet 1000, the Form1 is the fucking definition of knock-off.
    3d printers funded by a kickstarter make for your traditional slashdot-du-jour, but after the litigation dont expect Formlabs to be able to release their product for anything less than what a 3d systems entry-level model should cost. best to save your money go for a Mendel. [reprap.org]
    • by stenvar (2789879) on Monday June 24, 2013 @04:02PM (#44095717)

      3d systems, the patent holder for both the process and the hardware that in fact realizes the process, has been doing this since 1986.

      Yes, and right there you have it: that's 27 years ago and the patents are expiring.

      the Form1 is the fucking definition of knock-off.

      It is, and that is what is supposed to happen when patents expire.

      • by rijrunner (263757)

        Except they jumped the gun and sold product prior to the patent expiration.

        3D printing has been evolving since 1986, so there a successive generations of patents as they improve techniques and as new technology becomes feasible. 3D filed a lot of patents in the mid-1990's.

        They sold systems in Oct 2012 with a delivery date of Feb 2013. The particular patent in question does not expire until January 28, 2014.

        • by stenvar (2789879) on Monday June 24, 2013 @06:31PM (#44096735)

          The basic patents have already expired. The main patent 3D Systems sued over is effectively a software patent on a detail that improves printing quality of some objects. The Formlabs hardware has many non-infringing uses, so there was no justification on preventing its shipment based on that patent. In addition, 3D Systems had no way of knowing whether the Formlabs software would be infringing it (there are workarounds that can be used to achieve the same effect in a different way). The whole lawsuit looks like they were simply trying to make a nuisance of themselves to hinder the launch of the Formlabs printer.

          (As for the later patents by 3D Systems, they look pretty crappy to me.)

    • by RattFink (93631)

      ...their polymer, conveniently termed a "resin" on the Form 1 website, seems like nothing more than a creative attempt at skirting patent law.

      The resin / polymer isn't under patent. Doesn't really much matter what they call it. The patent is about automatically generating support lattice for an object during the printing process. It expires in less then 10 months. [uspto.gov]

      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        Which means they can not sell their product for ten months.

        • by stenvar (2789879)

          The hardware is non-infringing and has non-infringing uses (i.e., you can clearly print many useful things without that feature), so I don't see why its sales should be restricted. There is no clear evidence that Formlabs software was infringing, and if they had been, they could simply have removed the feature and delivered it via a software update 10 months later.

          • by jklovanc (1603149)

            The patent in the suite is this one [scribd.com] which is a hardware patent that expires next year. In US law making an infringing item is also infringing on the patent. Had Formlabs waited till all the patents had expired before starting to make the printer and software there would not be an issue. They jumped the gun and infringed.

            • by stenvar (2789879)

              Yes, that's the patent, and you're wrong. Just read the patent. That patent doesn't describe any hardware; it describes a way of modifying the layers of a 3D shape to be printed in software in order to allow smaller features to be printed. Nothing in the Formlabs printer hardware implements or infringes that patent. In fact, I doubt that this "invention" even runs on the printer; it makes far more sense to run it completely separately in the slicer. And, in addition, you don't need it to use the printer. 3D

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