Laser fight

Formlabs, 3D Systems settle their 3D printing patent battle

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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.

6 Responses to “Formlabs, 3D Systems settle their 3D printing patent battle”

  1. Bob Young

    I think that the courts got the answer correct on this one. Patents are about innovation. They say that you get to profit from an idea if you disclose it and make it public. This guarantees that ideas get made public for other to use; they can use it now for a fee and at a later time for free. Patents have a limited lifespan. This is a great system to ensure that ideas are not lost. However, it does tend to limit immediate use of that idea; unless you pay for it. Again, it helps to ensure an innovator that they can profit from an idea and that makes it more attractive to become an innovator. All patented ideas become public domain at some point.

  2. Itai Levitan

    > 3D printing does not belong to anyone. It benefits us all. True makers understand this.

    Very well said, Seth.
    Great article, too, Signe Brewster.

    Let the revolution continue.

    Itai Levitan, Co-Founder,

  3. Elite Cow

    Makerbot is an example of what not to be.. Promote open source and allow the community to build your firmware then close it and sell it as your own.. Makerbot is a disgrace to 3D Printing startups.

    • Seth Reed

      Mr. Cow, you are of course entitled to your opinion, but it’s getting a little tiresome to hear the same criticism of Makerbot, a company which has done more for 3D printing than any out there.

      Have you been to Makerfaire? Have you seen the scads of 3D printers that are out there right now, all of which have used the work Makerbot released to the community? Has Makerbot sued any of them? No.

      3D printing does not belong to anyone. It benefits us all. True makers understand this. It’s a wonderful technology and I personally cannot wait to see what the future holds. You can dwell on the past or join me in the future.