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Patents are granted by governments to protect the interests of those inventors that are prepared to disclose the details (in general terms) of their ideas in exchange for limited (regional and term) protection from competition by other commercial interests.

RepRap without patents

The RepRap movement does not aim to use patents. It specifically attempts to remain as open as possible. At the time is was put in motion Adrian Bowyer made the assumption that the best path for growth of a RepRap (self replicating) machine to evolve was to make keep the designs as open as possible. Once information is in the public domain it looses value in the commercial domain as it cannot be controlled to the same extent, it a way it is no longer hoard-able because it cannot be made scarce. This has limited and will continue to limit the amount of commercial assistance that the RepRap movement will receive but the long term goal should eventually be reached by organic evolution even though it has to evolve around other commercial restrictions. Much like the Internet will re-route around points of failure an open hardware movement will find ways around incumbent patents.

In terms of conflict between the open RepRap movement and the protected commercial movement there is the goal to grow the open knowledge pool to be so large that the limitations placed by the commercial interests no longer get in the way.

The global patent system in undergoing slow change and some of the ideas mooted for the future would be a global patent that would allow multinationals to gain patent protections in all countries with minimal efforts, in effect making the world the playground for those countries and corporations that have the luxury for research budgets rather than those who have natural resources or raw materials. There are certain things that need to be harmonised before such a global patent comes into effect, amongst the big players US allows patents on virtually anything, while Japan and especially the EU have stricter limits and the developing nations will not get much of a say. Some of the possible future changes in patent law are clearly intended to grow the monopoly in intellectual property rights of the developed countries over the developing world.

Patents that limit RepRap

The RepRap movement is like Minecraft, there is no exact end goal. The direction is set but will always point towards in more than one direction because there are multiple ways that a self replicating machine can be achieved. However the path has to circumvent the existing restrictions that are in place and this can only be done if the existing limitations are known.

The countries that are covered by a patent may be very limited as there is cost involved with applying for (renewing) and defending of patents, often only the most important industrial regions/countries are covered and many areas that are 'economically less important' are ignored and are legally free to make full use of the information disclosed in other patents that do not cover the regions as long as they do not trade into any of the protected regions. This could easily allow for the use of many disclosed innovations in small DIY and hobby scale production and development industries that are local. While the PCT (patent cooperation treaty) has made it easier to patent in many countries (it covers over 100 at the moment) but still requires individual country applications.

Patents are intended to prevent making, using, selling, or distributing the patented information for the limited time. They are not specifically intended to prevent research, testing and development in the field where in truth it would seldom even be known about but sometimes publishing incremental patents that cannot be tested or demonstrated without existing patents can cause uncertain situations. Many feel that internal and/or non-commercial research is fair use while some insist that reading the patent is as far as one is allowed to make use of disclosed material and any manufacture or production of the disclosed ideas is infringement. The specific case by case use will need legal advice to be sure if it is safe.

There are hundreds of patents that relate to 3D printing and similar topics but many are too esoteric to ever impact on hobby, craft, DIY and other small-scale users. Some significant ones are going to expire and others have questionable merit that might be challenged on the basis of prior art or obviousness if there was money and interest involved.

There are time limits that the patent holder have to adhere to in defending their patents from the time they are first ware of the infringement. The times differ in different countries but may be of the order of 7 years giving the holder a adequate time to file a defence if they choose to do so.

This is a list of interesting patents that are relevant to the RepRap movement.

Pat. No. Descriptive short title Owner Valid until date
(& if renewed)
Countries covered Importance to
US5597589 A Apparatus for producing
parts by selective sintering
University of Texas SLS patent
5597520 3D Systems early 2014 SLS patent, is enforced
4575330 3D Systems Stereolithography
4863538 University of Texas SLS patent
US 5653925 Sratasys
US 6004124 Thin-wall tube liquifier Stratasys

Trademarks that limit RepRap

Trademarks are also an issue but not in such a significant way as a generic term can usually be used. Trademarks have to be registered to gain maximum legal support and they have to be vigorously defended.

This is a list of interesting trademarks and registered trademarks that are relevant to the RepRap movement.

Name Descriptive short title Owner Countries covered Importance to
FDM (R) Fused deposition modelling Stratasys Use FFF instead

Interesting links

Forum threads

Other sites