Early this morning, someone on one of the 3D Printer development list that I belong to pointed out that MakerBot recently filed a slew of patents. Skimming through the patents filed, I came across this:
As someone who had been working with auto-levelling on the Kossel Pro, this was a very rude surprise. In a nutshell - Auto Levelling is The Next Big Thing for repraps. It is what makes the OpenBeam Kossel family so easy to use, and last year we became the first open source hardware company to ship an evaluation unit to Make Magazine for their 3D printer shootout. So I quickly checked the publication date, and recalled that Steve Graber, whose work we have been basing off of on the FSR auto levelling for the Kossel / Kossel Pro, had published a video of his setup last year:
Sure enough, the patent was filed 20+ days after Steve Graber had published his video demostrating probeless auto-levelling.
The thing is, Steve isn't the only one working on probeless auto-levelling either. Take a look at this DeltaMaker technical update, from July of 2013:
Surely reads like Makerbot's patent, doesn't it?
Considering the Stratasys - Afinia lawsuit, and the fact that Makerbot is now a subsidiary of Stratasys, it's not a stretch to imagine Makerbot coming after other open source 3D manufacturers that threaten their sales. After all, nobody acquires a patent warchest just to invite their competitors to sit around the campfire to sing Kumbaya. It is therefore vitally important that community developed improvements do not fall under Makerbot's (or any other company's) patent portfolio to be used at a later date to clobber the little guys.
Fortunately, as one of our Google Plus commentator pointed out, anyone can file a 3rd party prior art submission to the USPTO with regards to pending patent applications. The instructions can be found here, and I just did that for this patent tonight:
While this is not Makerbot's first instance of betrayal of the open source hardware community that it hailed from, this *is* probably the first concrete instance of Makerbot trying to patent improvements that originated from the community.
This goes on to illustrate the importance of sharing and publishing your work with the community, so that when needed, we can establish an online trail of prior art. The cheapest way to defeat this is to not let the patents be granted in the first place, and submitting a prior art notification to the USPTO before the patents can be granted is probably the best course of action (warning, IANAL). We at OpenBeam have not been doing a very good job with sharing our thoughts and designs and ideas, but that will have to change, to safeguard against such corporate abuse of the patent system.
Here's a list of Makerbot's recent patent filings. This one ought to be the low dangling fruit for people out there to try to invalidate with prior art, since it covers the fixes that people have been applying to the Replicator 2s to fix the filament drive issues.
A few notes:
* Online URLs are problematic for the USPTO - content online changes all the time. Do the old fashion thing and print things out into a PDF and make sure you embed the fonts into the PDF as well or convert them to soft font or their system becomes unhappy.
* In this case, I provided to the USPTO PDF copies of Steve Graber's G+ post, the DeltaMaker Kickstarter update, and a pdf printout of the Google Groups discussion on probeless auto levelling.
* It shouldn't have to be said, but stay civil with the USPTO. They are just doing their job, leave your grievances of the patent system at home.
* You are not alone in this fight! The good folks at EFF have been working with AskPatents.com on finding and invalidating bad 3D Printing patents:
Please join us to keep engineering honest, and to keep 3D printing accessible and democratized.
Edited to add:
I can't pull up the provisional patent that is referenced in the patent filing, but here are other examples of automated bed levelling, dating back further than the provisional patent date. In order for the earlier date to be honored, the claims must also be laid out in the provisional patent. Since companies often file a provisional patent to hold an early place in line and then pile on the claims later, it is very hard to tell what would be subjected to the provisional patent date. The point though, is that improvements such as automated bed levelling, extruder designs, etc, had long been in discussion in the reprap community long before the provisional patent is filed. If we as a community successfully show that there's lots of prior art in this field, we can severely limit the scope of the patent (or even better, invalidate it), to make it easier for developers to engineer around Makerbot / Stratasys's patents in the future.
Here's another blogger's take on the situation based on the extruder patent that I've referenced in my post: