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Kickstarter Sued Over Project's Alleged Patent Infringement
© Image: Gavel: Flickr.com / StockMonkeys.com
editorial

Kickstarter Sued Over Project's Alleged Patent Infringement

3D Systems, a three-dimensional printing company, announced on November 20th it is suing Formlabs, a rival, for patent infringement. As Formlabs had raised funds for its Form 1 printer on Kickstarter, 3D System is also bringing the allegations against the crowdfunding site.

“Although Formlabs has publicly stated that certain patents have expired,” said Andrew Johnson, the plaintiff’s general counsel, “3D Systems believes the Form 1 3D printer infringes at least one of our patents, and we intend to enforce our patent rights.”

The legal debate is over an improvement in the additive manufacturing technique called stereolithography. Stereolithography apparatuses use a laser to solidify liquid resin into thin layers, building one on top of another.

The patent Formlabs has allegedly infringed upon is U.S. Patent 5,597,520 (“Simultaneous Multiple Layer Curing in Stereolithography”), issued on January 28, 1997. It was awarded to 3D Systems for figuring out a way to make the layering process more accurate and efficient

Formlabs, which was created by researchers at MIT’s Media Lab, also built its printer to make use of stereolithography, as it claims in its Kickstarter campaign. It met its $100,000 initial goal in less than 24 hours and ended up raising a total of $2.95 million from 2,068 backers during September and October. Part of the project’s success, many believed, was its emphasis on high-quality 3D printing at an affordable rate. The Form 1 printer cost early bird backers $2,299, while other stereolithography apparatuses can run into the tens and hundreds of thousands.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Formlabs co-founder Maxim Lobovsky said part of the reason his company was able to offer the Form 1 at a relatively low price was the fact that several patents around stereolithography had expired (perhaps a nod to 3D Systems’ intellectual property rights around the technology). Generally, patents last 17 years from the issue date or 20 years from filing date.

Kickstarter has been named in the suit because it has acted as a “sales agent” for and promoted pre-orders of Formlabs’ 3D printer. The crowdfunding giant takes a 5 percent fee on all successful projects, meaning it made almost $150,000 on Form 1’s campaign.

While patent battles between tech companies are quite common, this is the first time Kickstarter has been named in such a case. The suit mentions Kickstarter’s terms of use, which forbid any patent or copyright infringement. But 3D Systems claims both the crowdfunding platform and Formlabs “knew or should have known about, or were willfully blind to, 3D Systems' extensive patent rights in the area of three-dimensional printing and stereolithography.”

It will take time for the court to issue its ruling, which means this is unlikely to have many short term effects (aside from potential disappointment for backers). If Kickstarter is eventually found guilty, however, the verdict may set a precedent unkind to crowdfunding platform operators. As some have pointed out, hiring a legal team and additional staff to vet project submissions for patent infringement may render crowdfunding sites unprofitable.

For more on 3D printing and crowdsourcing, check out our piece on the Bukobot, another printer funded on Kickstarter.

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