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When the makers collide with patents

The new industrial revolution of the makers is under way, but that doesn’t mean it won’t run into obstacles. Printing objects in 3D in any corner of the globe by drawing on online projects is a great achievement, but this kind of innovation might collide with the legal protection safeguarded by patents. The issue is serious enough, and in the United States there is already someone who has is working to throw some light on the subject – the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which, for more than 20 years, has been dealing with issues related to technology rights in all their forms.

The goal is this: make sure that the new patents filed in the United States don’t cut the makers off from techniques and processes that are part of common heritage. In fact, if you can demonstrate the existence of a previous implementation (called “prior art”) of an idea, this invalidates the patent. In practice, if the Patent Office discovers that a product or a process is public and already in use it cancels the patent application.

Reporting the existence of “prior art” can also be done by people outside the Patent Office, but there are very specific time windows for doing so. To find your way in this task, the EFF has therefore supported the Ask Patents project, an online platform where users with expertise in patent issues give advice to anyone who asks a sensible question on the patentability of ideas and products. The idea is to identify all the patent applications that raise questions and answer them before the application deadline.

However, there is also the other side of the coin. All it takes is a computer connected to the Internet, modelling software and a 3D printer to successfully reproduce any object covered by patents already in force. For now, three-dimensional printing has not yet forced businesses to close, but once this technology has entered all homes, some companies might start to worry.

Nevertheless, not all companies are intimidated by the advance of the DIY movement. There are also some cases of opening up towards the new technology used by the makers, as shown by the proposal of John Kneeland, Community & Developer Marketing Manager of Nokia:

In the future, I envision wildly more modular and customizable phones. Perhaps in addition to our own beautifully-designed phones, we could sell some kind of phone template, and entrepreneurs the world over could build a local business on building phones precisely tailored to the needs of his or her local community. You want a waterproof, glow-in-the-dark phone with a bottle-opener and a solar charger? Someone can build it for you—or you can print it yourself!

For a broader overview on makers and patents, read this interesting article published in Make magazine. In the United States the attention is high, but what about Europe?


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