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3D printing’s rise as an affordable craft did not happen randomly. It coincided with the expiration of the patents issued at the time of its invention in the 1980s.
But 3D printing companies never stopped applying for patents, and the ones that remain in effect have given rise to the growing industry’s very own patent wars. One of those closed today after 3D printing veteran 3D Systems and the well-known startup Formlabs settled, leading to the dismissal of their 2-year-old legal battle. Formlabs will now pay 3D Systems a royalty of 8 percent on everything it sells.
3D Systems originally sued Formlabs over eight patents it was granted in the 1990s. All of them covered different parts of the stereolithographic 3D printing process, which uses a laser to cure liquid plastic. Formlabs almost singlehandedly established the desktop SLA market, so it’s not a surprise it became a target for 3D Systems, the founder of which invented SLA printing in 1984. 3D Systems also named Kickstarter in its original suit for the role it played in selling Formlabs’ first machines, but that has since been dropped.
Patents have been a tricky subject for 3D printing startups, many of which started out as open source projects more interested in providing makers with hackable machines than making money (MakerBot, the best known desktop 3D printer maker, is one example).
MakerBot has since been bought by Stratasys, an international corporation that holds many of the patents that once held MakerBot back. 3D Systems and Stratasys have both stepped up their aggressiveness and taken startups to court in the past few years over patents.
It can be argued that allowing startups to use patented technology for free helps everyone. Very few people knew about 3D printing before desktop machines existed. While executives at 3D Systems and Stratasys have told me they appreciate the increased interest, clearly they are dedicated to protecting their IP. And, at least in this case, they’re very capable of winning.
This story was updated on December 4 with details about the licensing agreement.