Formlabs Question Mark
It was perhaps only a matter of time before we saw some legal movement against the startup sector from the established players in the 3D printing industry. With companies like MiiCraft, Asiga and Formlabs all running processes that look very similar to the established stereolithography and Digital Light Projection (itself a technology with patent issues) coupled with the previously litigious nature of the 3D Printing industry quite frankly if you think this is new — where have you been since 1986?
This won't be a popular move from 3D Systems, that much is already evident from a quick look at Twitter conversations overnight. Any time a 'corporate behemoth' looks to tackle a 'cute little startup' sparks will fly.
Intellectual Property laws are intended to protect companies and individuals who invest time and money into researching and developing a product or system for sufficient time for them to make some money out of their inventions. This is imperative to maintaining a strong research and development base in industry. While it's really nice to believe that open systems can harness then creativity of the community and everything can be shread... that's still not a commercial reality in a majority of cases.
In this case 3D Systems is a large company protecting its IP, which it is entirely understandable and indeed is the right thing for it to do. Where the friction with the wider community will come into play is if the larger company is seen to be using legal means of stifling, if not destroying, smaller competitors without real basis.
In the press release (below) 3D Systems states that: "3D Systems believes the Form 1 3D printer infringes at least one of our patents, and we intend to enforce our patent rights." Depending on the specific patent in question it may be easy for Formlabs to remedy the situation by finding a new way of doing things that avoids the patent — let's not forget that they have a significant war-chest at the moment. If however the patent is central to the process it could be hard times ahead for Formlabs.
3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD) announced today that it has brought suit in the Federal District Court of South Carolina, Rock Hill division, against Formlabs, Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Kickstarter, Inc. of New York, New York. 3D Systems is seeking injunctive relief and damages for infringement of one of its patents relating to the stereolithography process.
3D Systems' complaint asserts that the sale and use of the Form 1 3D printers sold by Formlabs and Kickstarter infringe a U.S. patent relating to stereolithography. Formlabs sold the Form 1 3D printers to backers of its Kickstarter campaign in September and October 2012. "3D Systems invented and pioneered the 3D printing technology of stereolithography and has many active patents covering various aspects of the stereolithography process," said Andrew Johnson, General Counsel of 3D Systems. "Although Formlabs has publicly stated that certain patents have expired, 3D Systems believes the Form 1 3D printer infringes at least one of our patents, and we intend to enforce our patent rights."