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Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.





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I am struggling with this unsupported statement (all the way back to the interview with a person who makes the same, unsupported claim) that patents have "crippled" 3D printing. Such printing has existed since 1984, so the patents filed on the original technology would be expired for about a decade, if not more. Furthermore, there are thirty different companies producing industrial and personal 3D printers, which hardly sounds "crippled" or "stifled."

Have patents become the boogeyman for some people such that they are always invoked regardless of whether they have a real effect on a technology?

3D printing is currently novel, but as it enters the mainstream expect to see the emergence of new regulations essentially prohibiting 3D printing. For example, the "manufacturing" of guns or the reproduction of toys.
Steve:

Something that is nearly 30 years old is "novel"? How do you figure that?

The fact is that in the last 20-25 years the technologies of rapid prototyping (today known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing)have been limited by the very high cost and availability of these technologies in the market, mainly because of the existing patents in such technologies. Once the patent of the most popular technologies, FDM (fused deposition modeling which is commonly based in the low cost 3D printing), was expired, everybody is knowing and buying this very promising innovation.It is expected to see something similar with other AM/RP technologies in the next few years (laser sintering,laser melting, etc) I agree, the system of patents and copyrights have stopped the innovation and competitiveness in this particular field of 3D printing
The fact is that in the last 20-25 years the technologies of rapid prototyping (today known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing)has expanded to at least nine different technologies, mainly because of the existing patents in such technologies and the drive to design around those patents. As the patents continue to expire on each of the nine technologies, undoubtedly costs will decrease and the use of the technologies could expand. However, the system of patents and copyrights directly led to the development of nine different and competing technologies in this field that probably would not have developed in the absence of patents. While innovation and competitiveness WITHIN each of the separate technologies may have slowed because of patents, though that is speculation, the separate technologies grew for the same reason, which will ultimately provide the basis for greater growth in the long term than would have existed without patents.
@anonymous:

So, you think we wouldn't have had those 9 technologies without patents? I can accept that, but it would be yet another evidence that patents suck. Of those 9 techs, some would have been pursued anyway, because someone would have believed they were a promising route. The others are just wasted effort: they're like tunnels across an artificial hill. Just don't build the hill in the first place, you won't need the tunnels.

So, you doubt that patents slowed competitiveness within each separate technologies? But that's their point: granting a monopoly to the first inventor, so he can make a profit without having to compete with copycats. Which has the obvious side effect of temporarily banning any incremental improvements which isn't inventor-authorized.

To Loup Vaillant:

"So, you think we wouldn't have had those 9 technologies without patents? I can accept that, but it would be yet another evidence that patents suck. Of those 9 techs, some would have been pursued anyway, because someone would have believed they were a promising route."

Except, when you look at the people who got into the 3D printing business, and you read their comments, you quickly find that one of the biggest reasons for developing an alternative is that they had to pay the royalties to the first guy.

As for "more promising," given that the market was relatively small for the first 15 years, it is difficult to give credence to that. "More promising" for what? Clearly it was not sales, because the market was so small that the existing 3D printers were fighting for customers by innovating left and right, providing competing claims of accuracy, speed, and cost. Even then, the business grew slowly because it took customers a while to see the benefit of the technology.

"The others are just wasted effort: they're like tunnels across an artificial hill. Just don't build the hill in the first place, you won't need the tunnels."

Except, how do you choose which ones are wasted effort? The first one could have been the wasted effort. Perhaps it was the second one. The reality is that there are now ELEVEN different 3D printing techniques, each of which was patented, and each of which is not only still in use, but is growing. While there is overlap in the technologies, each has their proponents, advantages, and disadvantages. Ultimately, some of these technologies likely will die, but only once the competing technologies obtain the advantages of the other technologies. In some cases, that will never happen. Indeed, it is likely that while we might ultimately still have eleven different technologies (I anticipate there will be more, because other companies are trying to figure out how to do 3D printing in a way totally different from the existing way).

"So, you doubt that patents slowed competitiveness within each separate technologies? But that's their point: granting a monopoly to the first inventor, so he can make a profit without having to compete with copycats. Which has the obvious side effect of temporarily banning any incremental improvements which isn't inventor-authorized."

I disagree with your last statement. People come up with improvements to competitor technology all the time, with the very goal of trying to gain access to the underlying technology. Indeed, the strategy of many companies is to optimize the technology of other companies for the sole purpose of gaining favorable licensing rights to that technology.

The question really is which is more important, the giant underlying technology, or the incremental improvements? I believe that some incremental improvement might well have happened without the existence of patents. However, the patent system can and does drive incremental improvements, because each company wants to have a unique product offered by no other company. The invention of 3D printing has driven 30 years of competing technologies (giant steps), all of which still exist and appear to still be growing, and many of those technologies exist because competitors wanted their own patented technology without relying on the original patented technology. Doubtless, there remain an infinite number of improvements to these technologies that will lead to an unknown but exciting future.

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