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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ultimaker to file patents... with dubious reasons

Yes, this is no April fools' day: Ultimaker is filing its first patents. Wow. We have cheap 3D printers at home specifically because old patents eventually ended up in the public domain. So: no lessons learnt?

"The industrial additive manufacturing market has some strong players,
some of whom are very proactive with patents. As such, we need to take
extra measures to protect our intellectual property (IP)"  Makerbot?  Ultimaker!

I really have mixed feelings (update D+2: given the feedback on this article, I now have no more mixed feelings: makers will probably flee away from the brand).

A lot of people say "it is how things are". But growing bigger is no excuse for playing the game: complying with the system is probably not a way to help fixing it. The bigger the company the more responsible it is of this stupid status quo.

Do you remember BQ trying to patent stuff also? They reacted quickly and withdrew after the community outrage (see Tom's disclaimer).

I hardly imagine the heated debates at Ultimaker headquarters on the matter. Sure, there are no real solution in the real world of intellectual property, and I understand that some thought they had to file patents at this point in the growth of the company.

But what annoys me much is how they justify the move to the community. They invoke reasons to file patents that are dubious in my opinion. The call to a defensive patent portfolio, for example, neither has legal ground nor it works well (more on that after the break). But in any case, applying for a patent does not help or defend the community in any way. Heh, even the founder of Ultimaker himself told so and years ago.:

“If it weren’t for patents, 3D printers would have made it to consumers long before.
It’s only now, with important 3D printing patents expiring, that the technology flourishes.”
Erik De Bruijn (founder of Ultimaker)

"In a Bid to Protect IP and Create More Freedom to Innovate,
Ultimaker Announced their Decision to Invest in Defensive Patents"

I hardly beleive they did write this! Hey, They Even Capitalized Every Word :D

Actually, patents may even stop your innovation as you have to stay within their protective bounds.

I used to like the brand, but I recently started to be skeptical of the claims. So is Ultimaker heading the same ugly way as Makerbot, as I detailed in length in 2014? Do not read me wrong: I really do not think so at this point.

But ... nobody can tell that it will never end the same way: there is simply no warranty. Trying to justify the move the way they do is wrong in my opinion and a step closer to a less friendly business. I thought a lot about it, both as a maker and as a businessman, and I do not like it.

So after Makerbot went down the rabbit hole right into China, after BQ withdrew its claims on a Fibonacci extruder on the Witbox, here is Ultimaker move. But frankly, I am skeptical they will retract.

They may have gone "too much" professional with this in my opinion and the move is obviously planed strategy at work (see the PR release again). We need to realize that the pioneering days are mostly over, as much as the time when the community helped Ultimaker survive and grow by doing the word-of-mouth marketing in their place. Suddenly, it sounds as if its own, old community of makers and tinkerers count less than the new, huge, promising market share. I would certainly not go as far as saying they abandon us (it would be stupid to redo a Makerbot mistake), but times did change.

Interestingly, some consider the brand with a heavy bias: they just "tell" that Ultimaker can proceed because it is not evil, and because it has good products. Just like Apple. Hey, the printers even are white ;) I got some bashing for what I say but I still need to read convincing non-biased arguments to change my mind.

Faith is nonsense in the business. Many hackers in the former Makerbot community thought alike initially, and it did not end up very well.

Why does a company patent stuff, what for?

But first, let me state all the options related to patents in my opinion, by "decreasing level of nastiness":

1) Patent for suing (intellectual property = extorsion), the worst kind being "non-practicing entities" aka patent trolls, pure greed, pure evil.

2) Patent for blocking competition (intellectual property = weapon). This should be as illegal as the previous strategy imho: you patent something to prevent the competitors to move on, including by refusing to licence the patent to them. The user pays a lot in the end. Apple plays at this level: is your stuff flat and round? You are in trouble because you are infringing their exclusive innovation.

2.5) (update): Patent to list on a stock exchange or before selling (so he pays more). This is a greedy neoliberal strategy, where IP does matter much as real added value, but more as a means to increase the perceived value of the company. Not really hacker-friendly thus.

3) Patent for licencing (regular use) (intellectual property = money, selling ideas instead, or in addition, to selling products). Still looks like greed, but a very common form of business. It was the original goal of patents so as to protect small inventors. But it did not work very long as such...

4) Patent to "protect the intellectual property" (IP = protection). The idea to counter-sue is often theoretical. even really large portfolio of patents will not be a warranty, check e.g. Apple vs. Samsung. Ultimaker would not sue a maker. But as someone said, what if Prusa Research use this capacitive bed leveling? What if Zortax does? What if Stratasys does? Where is the line? So how Ultimaker could realistically counter-sue, say, 3D Systems with its large set of patents and long history of being aggressive/blocking in the field? Somehow like the MAD doctrine: but we should realize that in the end, either everyone pays (for the bombs) or everyone dies (due to the bombs), and not only the players...

5) or, 4b... Patent to benefit from the above, while telling you do not like patents (i.e. try to have people believe you are altruistic or good-willing at the same time), like Google... Ultimaker is here, right from point 9 below. I would trust them more if they did not "claim" that nothing changed and they will always be good guys (only, they start filing patents).
Come on, nobody knows who buys who in the end and how the intellectual property is then handled... Not being evil is not legally binding either, as much as "faith" has no legal implications. And what if Ultimaker fails as a company? Or if the founders leave? No-one can say a patent troll will not buy it to sue everyone with their patents. Ultimaker should talk straight and say 4), 3) or possibly 2.5).

6) Patent and share within a group. This is probably the best solution right now. Patent it either as a group or as a company, but make sure everyone signs a declaration that the members of the group will not sue each other. Looks idealistic? No, just check the Open Invention Network for example, with Toyota, Asus and SpaceX among others. Something similar could be initiated by Ultimaker, and it would sound way closer to open source values than filing patents.

7) Patent and re-publish/license in the public domain. There is sadly probably no legal ground to apply for a patent and to put it into the public domain with the goal that it is free to all and forever and nobody will sue you on top of it. An it costs money. "Public domain" is even not always recognized in court according to countries.

8) Do not patent, but rely on "prior art". Legally, a patent is invalid when it describes something already present on the market. So just make it and publish about it, as the community did for years. Sure, stupid US patent offices do not do their homework though, and they awards tons of invalid patents. As long as they would not share the penalties in the subsequent lawsuits, the system will cost also to the defendant. But do not be bought by the opposite argument: having a patent portfolio may not get out out of trouble anyway since you still you often have to go to court to counter-sue... The argument is very dubious to me. Some said, that using prior art to defend oneself means you need to be in court, which costs money. But, 1) applying for patents also costs money, and 2) once again, the very idea to hold a few patent to be able to fight back is naive. You usually need lots of patents to avoid being sued (and even, it does not always work see Apple vs Samsung). Is that what Ultimaker is goind to do?

9) Play clear of existing patents (while contributing to prior art). It may not be simple, but they could try to avoid infringing genuine/risky/obvious patents filed by competitors. For example, heated chambers were subject to a patents but the "industrial reprap" beauties at Kühling&Kühling did not infringe the patent by incorporating the stepper motors within the enclosure. It sounds silly at first from the point of view of a maker, but as a business and legally speaking, it was smart and OK!
Many others manage to make a living business without patents and within the limits, like Aleph Objects (immensely Open-Source), Prusa Research (here is a real maker from day one), BCN3D (another real Open-Source company with innovative printers), printrbot (really nice entry level but reliable printers) and many others. Or like Ultimaker was... until now. Note also that the last two are licensed under CC-BY-NC (i.e. technically not Open-Source).

In my opinion not applying for any patent does work and is cheap. Admittedly, growing bigger and bigger puts you in the line of sight of even bigger companies, so you may feel you need protection. But playing the very game they played themselves for decades could be a riskier business even.

I was told I was naive. I admit I am a bit of an idealist, but I really no not think I am naive (hopefully since helping startups writing about their IP is also part of my job, believe it or not!..)

Why does a company patent something? Try to find any humanitarian or open source values at the world intellectual property organization website. Hint: nothing interesting on the website, but no bullshit either, it is all about plain business. What is the benefit for others? None.

Patenting is not necessarily wrong per se, but it is
an egocentric and sometimes greedy way of thinking and doing business.
This is by essence far from the values of Open-Source.

One way or another, filing patents is a means to try and protect its own intellectual "property", i.e. its own economic viability. Patents works mostly by reducing the freedom or even endangering the viability of others. It really does not fit well with the idea of Open-Source: do not be fooled by the company when it tells something else.

Does Ultimaker really want to play the game like the others?

And... is Ultimaker eventually talking bullshit?

Back to the late news with Ultimaker: as a company, it slowly moves away from what it was imho.

On one side I really like that they refused to get bought by bigger players (so far), that they hired open source developers (se Cura), or that they were open and managed to get paid back by a super friendly and active community. Many of us published many designs to improve an Ultimaker. Some even made some money out of it, via the Ultimaker shop itself (like the old LCD panel by Bernhard Kubicek or the Olsson additions).

If you’re an individual user or contributor,
you don’t need to worry, as these patents will not affect you.
(from the official press release)

Oh, great! At least they will not sue me as a contributor! :)

Ultimaker eventually managed to become a "serious business", and these are good news. Most if not all of us are pretty happy with it: it is justice, especially compared to Makerbot. But they certainly no more behave as a bunch of makers, and this move does not go well with the ethics of open source either, as clearly stated by Rich in a Google+ thread.

Here is what makes me feel the most nervous about: they hired professional public relation people, they raised their prices (the UM3 is almost perfect but just so expensive). But some people are raising eyebrows here and then (see e.g. some sneaky little late moves). And they eventually file patents. The last time I heard this, it ended up very badly (and it keeps on being more pitiful with time - see below Ultimaker / Makerbot).

There is simply no legal warranty at all that the next "Ultimaker Super Pro" will not be closed-source, or at least full of patents at this point. It is all "faith", but the factual behavior is that they are starting to apply for patents on their innovations, just as old-time nasty companies did. Period. Let us hope they will keep patenting only their own stuff.

Seriously, go and read the press release if you did not already: at best it is dull or, say, "professional". At worst, they make it look like that "filing patents" is obvious and natural and it evens promotes open source ;) I hope they will avoid the next usual trap, which comes after polished/biased marketing. It may be time to follow a serious anti-bullshit course.

Seriously, are they applying for patents to "protect the open community"? 

A company works to make money and to pay its employees. It has to, and I am perfectly OK with it.

But I cannot help but read the press release as: "we would better patent just in case".
Anyhow I would frankly better hear it straight, like this, and not without the additional highly counterproductive "...but we will tell lots of reasons why it is better for you and the community".
Deep in me I fear it could sound like "it is time we scrape a maximum of money out of this". Being big and owning a large part of the market certainly attracts non-maker friendly people.

When a company files patents, it is trying to protect its own intellectual property and its own economic viability, and by definition I would not try to use or improve the patented "invention" if I was designing 3D printers as a business: that would simply be too risky! Period. Patents are certainly not doing good to protect the community nor the makers at all. Just tell the truth, please. If you start telling lies, there is no end to the path.

A chilling effect is, the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise
of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction.” (ref)

So what about the patents in question?

I did not find details about the initial patent which seems related to bed leveling through capacitance (nice details here ... and below!). I shall read about as it is available, to see how really "novel" it is but I hope they are not patenting it just because it was hard to get it reliable. Actually, I know well since I had written a review about various techniques, and since I spent a long time with an unusual force-sensitive resistor setup that ended up on hackaday (without a patent).

But just as with my setup, I would not be surprised that a maker here or there already made it before. I also highly suspect that Ultimaker's patent legalese makes it over-reaching (after all if a professional wrote it...).

Update: Make your mind: here it is... err, just a contactless bed leveling? This sounds bad.

“According the present invention a print bed levelling system of the type defined in the preamble is provided, wherein the print bed levelling system comprises a nozzle head assembly movably arranged with respect to a substantially flat print bed member, the nozzle head assembly comprising one or more nozzle bodies each having a nozzle end, and a contactless sensor member disposed at a print bed engagement end of the nozzle head assembly, wherein the contactless sensor member comprises a sensing surface in sensing engagement with the print bed member over a relative sensing range between a distal sensing position and a proximal sensing distance.”
- Reference: NL2015361

If ever Ultimaker's patents keep on being filed and if they are over-reaching, I will no more promote the brand: they would have fallen in the greedy trap, and that would depart from the Open-Source ethics. Their printers are nice, but the business model that uses patents did too much harm already in the field for the last decades. Being big is not an excuse, nor being hard work. Putting PR sugar around the fact adds insult to injury in my opinion.

What is sad is that they would have better talked about the need for patents when they were small imho. Small companies do need legal protection. Bigger ones mostly do silly things with patents and the economy. As they say, they could not afford it when they were small. But now that they have money, they play the same game as all bigger companies. They should choose point 6 in the list above, and lead a group of open cooperation, not file for they own private business/safety/whatever the talk.

Big, serious, and with a patent portfolio. Sad usual business?

UM eventually grew on its own to a point it became a large, leading company in the 3D printer business. It is well deserved on one side. I remember times when the lead time was ridiculously long, and when non-EU customers had no distributors... That was a real pity because both the product and the stance were neat.

Ultimaker promoted Open-Source values, in their way. There were a few hiccups though, such as files made with very expensive proprietary software (that no maker could really use), sometimes out of date, or incompatible. Or the choice of the "non-commercial" variant of the Creative Common licence, which is factually not an Open-Source licence, although a nice "intermediate" license in my opinion, though mostly unusable.

Becoming "serious" probably brought in professionals in marketing, corporate look and feel, greed, and. Who knows they may end up hiring "invention harvesters" in the end as Makerbot did. All these employees are there to improve sales one way or another. Whatever they tell, their job are will not make better open source, nor "help" the community: wearing a tie never makes the job better. A better packaging only increase sales. They do their job I guess, but most of these people sound biased to me (to say the least). Patents are just an extension of this usual business, with the difference that they may not increase sales actually.


Five years ago [...] MakerBot was the darling of the
Open Source Hardware movement. MakerBot was the poster child of
a new economy where anyone could manufacture hardware, at scale,
and ship it to thousands of consumers around the world (ref)

Yes, Bre Pettis was also a zealous advocate of Open Source before he changed his mind after his company, Makerbot, got bought for millions. He then argued that Open-Source was not a viable solution for a company, that Makerbot got ripped by competitors and it was losing money due to copycats. Innovation and efficiency was replaced by Marketing and bragging. His company was eventually outsourced to China. And nowadays it is a miserable catastrophic failure.

Now, I am really sorry to realize there exists a parallel. I will certainly not say that UM is bound to the same fate (that would be a fallacy). But Erik De Bruijn, the founder of Ultimaker himself changed his mind also: check his own words years ago. Sure, Erik is not Bre, but I really would like to hear his own arguments to defend the new patent strategy, and to hear him say why and what changed. Oh, sorry, the official stance is that nothing changed at all. Huh.


I have no problem with people or companies changing their mind (it is even a sane attitude). And it is their right to move to closed source if ever they want at some point (the deal with Cura is more interesting as it is really Open-Source). Of course their latest move hurts the community, and Ultimaker does not resemble Makerbot: the latter was extremely arrogant and nasty in doing so, while the former is quite cautious (with reason).

But I am quite uneasy when people or companies change their mind or their stance, while they pretend they did not. I would gladly see the opposite move than what Ultimaker chose to do. This is not a good sign at all. It sounds like dirty business.

As far as I know, there are no shareholders at Ultimaker that only want to get richer whatever the way (even though this feeling may be shared among non-shareholders alike). It reduces the risks both for the company and for the community. Ultimaker may be large enough a company at this time (200+ people), with a clear sky ahead. So they might also resist being bought by bigger than them as they did already... in the short term, once again. Anyhow, I predict most of the "real makers" will quickly drift or flee away from the brand with their latest attitude.

I am not sure I want to spend time thinking about what the next step might be: filing more and more patents on each and every invention they can find or add to their printers? Progressively closing the sources of Cura while telling it is for our good?

I would better go and make something instead.

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