Two minor characters from my novel Makers have apparently come to life and written an article for 3D Printing Industry. These two people are patent lawyers for Finnegan IP law firm, Washington, DC, which I don't recall making up, but this is definitely a pair of Doctorow villains (though, thankfully, I had the good sense not to give them any lines in the book — they're far too cliched in their anodyne evil for anyone to really believe in).
These patent lawyers are upset because the evil Makers (capital-M and all!) are working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to examine bad 3D printing patents submitted to the US Patent and Trademark Office. The problem is that 3D printing is 30 years old, so nearly all the stuff that people want to patent and lock up and charge rent on for the next 20 years has already been invented, and the pesky Makers are insisting on pointing out this inconvenient fact to the USPTO.
This breaks the established order, which is much to be preferred: the UPSTO should grant all the bullshit patents that companies apply for. The big companies can pay firms like Finnegan to file patents on every trivial, stale, ancient idea and then cross-license them to each other, but use them to block disruptive new entrants to the marketplace. The old system also has the desirable feature of arming patent trolls with the same kind of bullshit patents so that they can sue giant companies and disruptive startups alike, and Finnegan can be there to soak up the tens of millions of dollars in legal fees generated by all this activity.
Can't these darned Makers understand? The point of a patent isn't to protect novel, useful inventions! It's to put the brakes on out-of-control innovation and to ensure that the children of the partners at Finnegan can go to a good college! What will happen to GDP if we divert money from the honest business of barratry and allow it to be squandered on making and selling stuff that people find useful?
The America Invents Act changed U.S. patent law to allow preissuance submissions, a mechanism by which third parties can submit patents or printed publications to the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) for consideration during patent examination, along with "a concise description of the asserted relevance of each submitted document." The U.S. Congress intended preissuance submissions to help the USPTO increase the efficiency of examination and the quality of issued patents. Congress did not, however, intend the use of this mechanism to interfere with patent examination. Nor did it intend preissuance submissions to allow for third party protest or preissuance opposition. Yet a segment of the 3D printing (3DP) community, known as Makers, is using preissuance submissions as a sword to oppose 3DP-related patent applications. Perhaps more importantly, they are leveraging the concept of crowdsourcing to do so, potentially creating problems for patent applicants everywhere.
To understand why and how Makers are mobilizing to challenge patents through presissuance submissions, one must first understand what 3DP is, and the composition of the 3DP community. 3D printing—more formally known as additive manufacturing—is a technology that creates three dimensional objects from CAD files. There are many legacy and emerging 3DP technologies. Generally, 3DP works by fusing layer upon layer of materials, such as plastics, powder metals, and ceramics, to build a final, fully formed product, much as Athena sprung full-blown from the head of Zeus. This process requires a digital 3D model of the product, stored in a CAD file, and a 3D printer. Digital product models can be obtained by either (1) designing the product with a CAD program; (2) downloading an existing CAD file from the Internet; or (3) scanning an existing product with a 3D scanner to create a CAD file. Further, almost anyone can buy a 3D printer today; they are sold through Skymall and at Staples. Where 3DP was once cost prohibitive for most, 'prosumer' and home printers are now available at reasonable prices.
Crowdsourcing Prior Art to Defeat 3D Printing Patent Applications
(via Beyond the Beyond)
(Images: Caricature of William Otto Adolph Julius Danckwerts, Caricature of Charles Russell, Leslie Ward/Vanity Fair/Wikimedia Commons)