Last week I saw Michael Weinberg’s article on MAKE “Stratasys Sues Afinia: Ramifications for the Desktop 3D Printing Industry”. After reading it I had more questions about Stratasys, patents, and MakerBot. I emailed Bre Pettis the CEO of MakerBot and with permission I am posting up the responses here on MAKE. Thank you, Bre!
BRE: Thanks for the email, PT. I hope I can clear some of this up. I’m writing this as Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot. MakerBot is an independent subsidiary of Stratasys Ltd. This lawsuit is filed by Stratasys, Inc., who owns the patents and developed the technology. MakerBot is staying focused on empowering creative people with desktop 3D printers, scanners, and software to make it easy. Even though this is Stratasys’ thing, I’ve gotten lots of inquiries about this lawsuit and by answering these questions. I hope that people can understand more about the patent system, how it works, and why companies use it.
PT: Would you consider your patents being used for “patent trolling”?
BRE: A patent troll is generally considered to be an entity that acquires or creates patents and does not utilize them themselves. Because Stratasys manufactures products based on its patents, Stratasys is not a patent troll.
PT: Why did you choose to get patents in the first place?
BRE: Patents aren’t simple. It’s not a black and white issue. If you hated everything that was patented ever then you wouldn’t have much to like.
Personally, when we started MakerBot, I was a hobbyist and didn’t know much about patents. I knew I wanted to grow MakerBot as a company to bring 3D printers to the desktops of the world. Our number one mission is to empower as many people as we can with the technology so they can make the things they want in their lives. As we grew MakerBot, I initially preferred to save money by ignoring patents and focusing on technology development, but the long-range vision required learning how to file patents. We decided to patent our innovations for a variety of benefits. We wanted to be able to survive as a company and know that our inventions were protected by law. We also wanted to possibly have some valuable business assets to leverage in a negotiation with a larger business. And, if we had chosen a different route and gone public, we wanted the ability to license and cross-license our inventions. For MakerBot, we planned for long term sustainability. We invested early in turning our novel ideas into patents. It was a learning experience and it took a long time to understand the patent system. It’s actually a pretty cool thing for an innovator to see his or her name on a patent and at MakerBot. We credit the individuals who come up with inventions within the company.
For Stratasys, they invented FDM technology and they knew they were on to something big and so they patented their ideas early. It probably should come as no surprise that Stratasys finds patents valuable and has committed significant resources to its current patent portfolio and through continued R&D.
That’s why MakerBot and Stratasys each began patenting their innovations.
There are some reasons companies and individuals choose not to patent their inventions. For legal reasons, I can’t give advice on whether a company should or shouldn’t patent an idea, but it’s interesting to look at different models of innovation. If your company does or does not patent inventions, I think the reasons would be a great thing to hear about one way or the other in the comments.
Many non-profits and members of collaborative shared projects like RepRap choose to put their work in the public domain.
Some products may not have a long enough lifetime to justify the time and expense of getting a patent that cover them. In some industries, a product may just have a planned lifetime of one holiday season and so that might not justify the expense and hassle of getting a patent on the technology because applying for a patent generally takes 18 months at minimum and often it takes much longer.
PT: Please explain your IP Strategy in regards to patents.
BRE: The current Stratasys and MakerBot IP strategy is to innovate in the 3D printing sector and make the best tools for creative people. Because 3D printing has existed for decades, and there are thousands of patents, R&D costs are high. Patents recoup these R&D costs.
David Reis, Stratasys CEO, said in his recent news release that “IP infringement discourages companies from investing in innovation. Stratasys pioneered 3D printing, and invests millions of dollars each year to develop our technologies. In 2012 alone, Stratasys Ltd invested $33.3 million or 9.3 percent of its revenues in R&D. We intend to protect that investment.”
For some people in the 3D printing community who are creating their own 3D printers to sell and who have just discovered that 3D printing is a mature patent space, I can understand that it must feel frustrating to feel limited. When we were growing MakerBot, there were many times where we came up with an idea that we thought was new only to find that it had been patented years before. So we would rethink it and do something different. As they say on basketball courts, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” While some will choose to spend their energy hating, we at MakerBot use our energy to come up with new technology. For innovators, the patent system can be a positive challenge to find new ways of doing things.
In IP terms, the limitations on patents are relatively reasonable by contrast to other forms of IP, like copyright. While 20 years may seem like a long time for a patent to expire, copyright extends for 70 years after the death of the artist. In general, that means that if something is copyrighted in my lifetime, it is likely that only my grandkids will be able to utilize it for their own purposes when it enters the public domain.
PT: Are you planning on suing individually hobbyists who are making 3D printers at home?
BRE: I legally can’t make forward-looking statements on behalf of MakerBot or Stratasys. I can say that we are regularly inspired by the innovation created by individual hobbyists. At MakerBot, we often try to hire and collaborate with clever and smart people.
PT: If an individual in the 3D printing community created an innovative idea/approach and had a patent would you be interested in working with them?
BRE: At MakerBot we are currently collaborating with many innovators on an independent or consultant basis. We also encourage our users to give us feedback that can help make all of our products better for everyone. The best way to work with us is to join us. We have job openings at MakerBot.com/careers and if we aren’t hiring for something you think you can do with us, we have a category on the site for submitting just a cover letter and a resume.
PT: How much does Stratasys spend on R&D per year?
BRE: In 2012 alone, Stratasys Ltd invested $33.3 million or 9.3 percent of its revenues in R&D. Without spending time, energy, and money on R&D, Stratasys can’t make progress to empower more people with new technology. This number doesn’t include the R&D work MakerBot has done because we weren’t a Stratasys subsidiary until August 2013.
PT: Do you file your patents only in the USA or worldwide?
BRE: Often both, but it really depends on the idea.
PT: How important is the hobbyist and DIY community to Stratasys?
BRE: When Stratasys started in 1989, the focus was on b2b customers. Now, with the acquisition of MakerBot, one of the primary missions of Stratasys is to explore the frontier of 3D printing and support broader 3D printer adoption.
Hobbyists and the DIY community are the grassroots of the Next Industrial Revolution. We believe that when individuals unlock their potential with a 3D printer, that wonderful things can happen. Projects like Robohand have been created by DIY engineers. At-home innovators are blazing a trail into the future. Projects like these inspire us to keep innovating. We are also inspired by entrepreneurs that use MakerBot and Stratasys technology to launch new companies and these folks are not only pioneering the Next Industrial Revolution, but are creating new products and jobs.
PT: Can the community blame Bre Pettis or MakerBot for the initiation of this lawsuit?
BRE: We certainly didn’t ask Stratasys to file this lawsuit. This lawsuit was initiated by our sister company Stratasys, Inc., who owns the patents, developed the technology, and filed the lawsuit. Legally I can’t comment on the lawsuit.
You can’t blame me, MakerBot or Stratasys for the patent system. What you can blame us for is creating products and working within the current system to make sustainable products that are innovative and powerful.
I know that there are haters out there who will hear the words “patent” and just hate, but patents are a fact of life for most growing technology companies. Patents can be confusing and I do not consider myself an expert, but I hope by answering these questions, I have given the community some insight into how patents work from both my perspective, the perspective of MakerBot as a rapidly growing company, and Stratasys as a more mature technology company.
Thanks again Bre for answering these questions!