If you were unfamiliar with the world of patents before reading the April 16 post on Desktop Engineering, “EFF Challenges Six 3D Printing Related Applications” you would think the patent system was a hindrance to, rather than a catalyst for, innovation and a potential threat to the growing additive manufacturing industry. To the contrary, while not perfect, the US patent system continues to serve as an effective means for protecting and incentivizing innovation and will help additive manufacturing to grow to its fullest potential.
As the additive manufacturing industry grows, patent activity, and patent disputes, in the space will surely increase. And this is a good thing; for such activity is indicative of vitality. Typically, an innovation of any worth is worthy of protection and often the subject of dispute.
The patent process is to some extent adversarial at each step in the process. Simply applying for a patent does not guarantee that one will receive a patent. Rather, the claimed invention must meet all the criteria of patentability in order for a patent to be issued, at least in theory. In practice, as with every human institution, there are lapses; in some instances, patents have issued that should not have; but that does not mean the patent system, as a whole, is not an effective means of protecting and incentivizing innovation.
The recent change in the patent laws have made it easier to attack weak issued patents, and more difficult for those patent holders intent on making less than good faith claims of infringement to do so without greater expense than in the past. These changes have made the system more robust and better able to foster innovation without unduly burdening it.
Don’t underestimate the importance of patents to innovation. Many of the great innovations have been brought to us by what were once small companies, but that are now large due in no small part to the value they were able to realize from their innovations. Without the protections afforded by the patent system, few small entities with innovative technologies would have much chance of success in a marketplace filled with larger, better financed companies who could commandeer any worth innovation. And without at least a chance of success, few would be willing to pour their time, money and effort into the necessarily uncertain endeavor of innovation.