Patent Expiry Can Increase Innovation

Patent Expiry Can Increase InnovationWhile patents help protect innovations, patent expiry can lead to an explosion of creative new uses for existing technologies and create new business opportunities.

As an example let’s consider 3D printing.

The technology has existed in various forms since the 1980s. A simple form of 3D printing is fused deposition modelling (FDM) where a printing nozzle ejects molten material to build up a 3D object.

When the patents on FDM expired, the market for FDM printers exploded. This drove down costs and created a new market for 3D printers. Five years ago a FDN machine cost $14,000 now you can buy one for as little as $300.

Consumers and hobbyists adopted 3D printing and a movement of ‘makers’ who manufacture one product at a time at home emerged. The 3D printer market became divided into high cost models costing tens of thousands of dollars and low cost ‘hobbyist’ models.

For the second time, a similar series of events is playing out in the 3D printing space. Patents covering ‘laser sintering’ technology expired in 2014. Laser sintering uses lasers to fuse powdered materials together. It can produce much higher quality objects that can be sold as finished products. Once again, the lifting of IP barriers has increased competition, reduce the cost 3D printers and created new business opportunities..

A new class of high quality printers has emerged, costing less than $5000, offering bright coloured materials and high resolution. These mid-range printers are suitable for small and mid-sized companies wanting to produce high quality, finished products in larger volumes.

I expect these patent expiries will lead to even more adoption and exploitation of 3D printing. Look out for companies using multi-material printers to print products made of plastic and metal in the near future. In the longer term, I’d expect companies to more from printing single objects to printing complete systems or sub-systems with multiple components.

So remember: Patents good, patent expiry good too.

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Original image courtesy of opensource.com, used under a Creative Commons license

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