3D Printing Pioneer Sues Kickstarter And Formlabs Over Patents

FormLabs 3D printer printing

Creators of the affordable 3D printer ‘Form 1’ could be in trouble

US company 3D Systems is suing crowd-funding platform Kickstarter and MIT startup Formlabs over the technology used in a popular 3D printer.

The Form 1 printer is a real Kickstarter success story. The campaign by Formlabs raised $2,945,885, 30 times more money than was necessary to finish the project. Form 1 can create higher quality objects than its competitors, such as the popular MakerBot, but costs a lot less than professional equipment.

This is the first time Kickstarter has been sued over a project on the website.

Fighting for printing

Stereolithography is a 3D printing technique that involves a vat of liquid photopolymer “resin” and an ultraviolet laser to build objects from digital models, layer by layer. Exposure to the ultraviolet laser light cures and solidifies the pattern traced on the resin and joins it to the layer below.

The technique is used to rapidly design, prototype and produce functional parts and products. It had been patented by 3D Systems co-founder Chuck Hull in 1986. Another patent, awarded in 1997, dramatically improved the quality of the resulting 3D models.

Formlabs opted for stereolitography when creating Form 1 because it delivered professional results without breaking the bank. A comparable system can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but Form 1 would be available to anyone who pledged over $2,299 to the campaign.

The startup required $100,000 (£62,700) to complete the project, but received $1.4 million (£0.88m) in pre-orders in under a week. Currently, the total amount pledged to Form 1 stands at almost $3 million (£1.88m).

3D Systems told the BBC it was “well known” in the industry as the owner of a significant portfolio of stereolithography-related patents. The company has defended its intellectual property in the past, and accused Formlabs of ignoring the obvious legal implications of its project.

The Federal District Court filing also highlighted the threat that cheaper Form 1 poses to the sales of the equipment made by 3D Systems. The company holds Kickstarter equally responsible, because it took five percent of the pledges and promoted the allegedly infringing product.

Formlabs staff have told the media on more than one occasion that their printer relied on several patents which were expired, which meant the team didn’t have to pay expensive licensing fees and could offer Form 1 at a reasonable price.

“Although Formlabs has publicly stated that certain patents have expired, 3D Systems believes the Form 1 3D printer infringes at least one of our patents, and we intend to enforce our patent rights,” said 3D Systems in the court filing.

Formlabs is still taking pre-orders for its printer.

Kickstarter launched in the US in April 2009 and claims that during its existence, more than $350 million (£218m) has been pledged by more than 2.5 million people, funding more than 30,000 projects. The platform officially launched in the UK last month, with pledges being taken from 31 October.

TechWeekEurope previously reported on Pebble, a watch that can display smartphone notifications, run apps and browse the Internet, which had become the most funded project in the history of Kickstarter, raising more than $9 million (£5.6m).

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