Observers fear that the young and rapidly growing field of 3D printing could fall into a trap of lawsuits and hefty license fees.
If there is one thing the patent wars in the mobile industry have taught us, it is that the price of innovation can be ruinously expensive. By one estimate, there are over 250,000 active patents affecting smartphones, or about 16% of all patents presently in force in America. One reason for that astonishing number is that patents are granted not just for groundbreaking innovations but also for relatively straightforward things such as the “slide-to-unlock” feature on the iPhone. That means lawsuits or hefty license fees for those who want build on existing work.
Observers fear that the young and rapidly growing field of 3D printing could fall into the same morass. At the moment, 3D printing is seeing a lot of innovation coming from enthusiasts who openly publish and share their work. But if applications to patent similar technology are granted, that means innovators may find themselves unable to use existing ideas for the 20-year life of a US patent.
A coalition of groups is now trying to ensure this does not happen. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a two-decades-old American digital rights advocacy teamed up with the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard and Ask Patents, a Q&A site, to challenge a series of 3D printing-related patents pending approval in the US. Among these is one that seeks to patent the technology required to 3D print chocolate.