This is an important time in the development of 3d printing.
We have just cleared nearly two decades of the fundamental MIT patents on 3d printing using powders, and although there is a tangle of improvement patents on particular forms of 3dp technology, we have some hope of opening up development activities from its university-created, monopolistic roots.
Recently Michael Weinberg at Public Knowledge published an important essay on the prospect of intellectual property issues slowing the development of 3d printing. Public Knowledge has spent a great deal of time dealing with digital copyright issues. Weinberg worries that manufacturers will sue 3d print users for making copies of their products, or replacement parts.
These are important things to consider, but I fear the biggest threat to 3d printing may well be coming from universities, and in particular from university technology transfer offices fixated on filing early-stage patents and holding to a coarse idea of “commercialization”, which to them means “make money by licensing”. Almost always, making money from licensing at a university these days involves (1) exclusivity (2) a requirement that the exclusive licensee play the monopolist (3) no reservation of rights or public license for internal uses or noncommercial uses except perhaps (4) for limited nonprofit or educational uses at the licensing university. No university I know of is willing to offer a non-exclusive license to practitioners generally, and never before having first attempted to negotiate an exclusive license. The reservation for practice comes after the money grubbing is accomplished in the name of “commercialization” for the “public good”. Often the only licensee willing to play the monopolist is a university-supported start up company, since there’s not a huge rush from real, working companies to play the part.
This activity is said to be in the public interest. Somehow the university administration making money from licensing is more important than the health of research, collaboration, competition, and development of technology, platforms, and standards. The technology transfer office will put $15K into a patent application on the prospect of some monopoly speculation, but won’t put $15K into equipment that would facilitate our efforts to work with others. The university claim is that unless folks take these early, speculative monopoly positions, no one will have the motivation to use such wonderful things, inventors will not be rewarded, and jobs won’t be created. And if you buy that, I have a bridge to sell you, too.
In practice, the university licensing programs, across many fields of endeavor, quietly cause net damage to research, new venture economies, and industry practices. You won’t read that in any annual report from a technology transfer office, however. For the most part, university licensing offices are well intentioned, work hard, and are at least modestly capable. But a speculative model of monopoly licensing of research inventions is itself broken and hurts innovation in all sorts of ways for the sake of seeking licensing income. Being sincere (or even sincerely apologetic) about it doesn’t fix anything.
Look at 3d printing. It was wonderful that MIT folks invented something, licensed its patents, and got a company on its feet to make 3d printers. We like that company, and use its products. The license was exclusive for 3d printers, however, and no one could build a powder-based 3d printer, even for research use, in the US while the patent and exclusive field of use license were in force. The company, furthermore, has gone on to obtain a bunch more patents on improvements and applications, and has effectively kept out competition for two decades. Its printers sell for $15K or so a pop, it takes $2K or so to fill the feed bin with their proprietary material, and you are out another $5K+ for a year of warranty service. Put any non-company material in the feed bin and the company voids the warranty and won’t service the printer. Luckily, they build a really great machine that with a little help from friends is readily self-serviceable. Put in Hydroperm and you can fill the feed bin for under $35 and get perfectly acceptable output.
Now it looks like folks at MIT are out filing a new patent application that would monopolize any mixed material fused deposition 3d printing. The first claim basically says, add heat to any nozzle with any actuator and any chamber in which multiple materials can be mixed, for continuous variation on output. If MIT follows its usual practice, this will be the end of the road for fused deposition mixed materials for another 20 years. Is this a public benefit? Or an outright attack on the practice community?
There’s another argument that says: “who cares if it is a public benefit?, take what you can and hold it until someone pays you for it! That’s commerce; it’s the law of the jungle; finders keepers, everyone else a weeper.” This all may be true in a sort of smug, self-fulfilling way, and it may be how the transcontinental railroads were built in America, but it also is a value system that for all its rhetoric about innovation is largely clueless about how innovation comes about. As Steven Johnson shows in his recent book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, a whole lot of the innovation that has made the world what it is has come from non-market, networked efforts.
When universities grab inventions early, stick speculative patent pins in them, and then head off with boxes of them mounted in their death sprawl for “commercialization”, they are in effect destroying much of the opportunity for university researchers to participate in networked, non-market activities, like the ones that gave us the internet, email, and blogs. Yes, on top of this activity came commercial activity of all sorts, from Cisco to Google to WordPress. That’s innovation. But many university patent licensing offices are not helping the process. Indeed, they are fine with killing that process off in favor of seeking monopoly rents.
Cases in point. We called up USC, where Behrokh Koshnevis has invented some interesting methods for 3d printing cement for construction. We asked, “Could we collaborate? Could we try out these methods? Would you give us a research license?” “Nope. Can’t do that.” “So you would like, sue us if we worked in this area?” “Well, can’t say we would, can’t say we wouldn’t.” End of discussion. We called up Bowling Green State University, where John Balistreri had invented some techniques for printing in ceramics. “What’s the situation? Can we collaborate?” “We’ll think about it, perhaps, later. We would rather license to a company.” Later we hear they have done a deal, so no collaboration possible. The ultimate irony: a former BGSU grad student contacts us–can he work with our ceramics, seeing as he is locked out of the BGSU approach? Neat.
We are finding that university technology transfer offices cannot bring themselves to be open about research. It goes against their policies, their expectations, their metrics. Their business is wrapped up in pulling stuff as early as possible from a stream of research, introducing patent claims and requirements for contracting, and adding a business model that prefers monopoly and speculation. Their pitch to faculty is not only that this is how to make money on top of salary (the “Porsche effect” as it’s called), but that it is everyone’s *ethical duty* to do this, as this is how to benefit “the public”, comply with federal funding rules, and do one’s duty to the university (it is *policy* after all that the university gets to own inventions and control all deals).
Even when folks publish their work, it’s an entirely different gesture if there are patent applications filed. They don’t typically make it known in their publications that the university has filed patent applications. Universities generally keep patent applications secret. We ask: what’s the point of doing research based on published findings where there are patents pending that you don’t even know about? One can’t get a license even for research purposes, and even if one could, one can’t grant sublicenses to anyone else who wants to work on the research with you, and no company in their right mind would sponsor such work without a license (contributory infringement, likely willful, so treble damages).
What the licensing officers are doing is turning authentic research communications reporting research events (such as inventions) into an implied shilling for future monopoly licensing interests. That’s the primary screw up, and it’s a huge one. The university technology licensing offices pursuing monopoly commercialization are scorching the research earth. If anyone has the ability to “screw it up”, it is the university licensing offices. And they claim categorically that it is in the public interest to do so.
What is an open research program to do? 1) Publish early and often. That’s one role for this blog. It isn’t always pretty, but it has a primary job to do and that is to make public our work as it develops and raise the bar on what counts as an invention worthy of respect. 2) Collaborate with folks whose contributions are non-toxic and are willing to engage, reciprocate, and compete on quality, responsiveness, and insight. 3) Work in good faith against the interests of people trying to use speculative patenting to block practice and exploration in 3d printing so they can dominate practice and thereby make money.