The Next Open Source Battle Is Being Waged In The 3D Printing Industry


3d_printing_hero2smMore than twenty years ago, Linux began wending its way out of the primordial soup that was the early Internet and ensconcing itself in servers and workstations around the world.

After its creation in 1991 it took another eight years or so to be widely recognized, but during that period, arguments arose as to what Linux really was. Could Red Hat, a company founded in 1993, sell services around it? Who made money when you sold a CD containing the latest version of Mandrake Linux? Who owned code written on top of Linux for specific purposes? To the open source community, the answers to all those questions was “No one. The community owned Linux.”

And the battles began. Richard Stallman, the man behind the GNU operating system, fought for a licensing model that allowed for absolute freedom in software while Linus Torvalds called for a less adamant interpretation of the philosophy. These wars, which were waged on mailing lists and usenet, are now almost forgotten and, thanks to quick and easy donation systems and direct downloads of open source software, it is trivial to support your favorite open source project either through code check-in or actual donations. It’s also trivial – if not expected – to sell services and support on top of open source software. Many services, including WordPress, follow this model.

Now we are entering a different conflict, one whose core question is “Who owns 3D printing?” The origin of this quandary lies with the creation of the RepRap Project, an open source effort to create a machine that can build itself. Founded in 2005 by Dr. Adrian Bowyer, RepRap printers have existed in a parallel evolutionary course to high-end industrial printers that cost thousands if not millions of dollars. Now those waters are muddied thanks to the big guys, Stratsys and 3D Systems, beginning to actively use their patents to protect their IP. Furthermore, there are examples of designers who offer their 3D objects up in the Creative Commons (here are mine, for example) and are then upset when users with printers offer their designs for sale.

The IP in question is manifold but the battle most recently came to a head in two patents the corporation filed on behalf of its designers. One is a self-leveling bed solution – something that’s been done before and is currently the Holy Grail of open source printers – and another is for a quick-release filament guide which users are claiming is similar to this open source project on MakerBot’s own Thingiverse. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide whether either of these cases exhibit enough prior art and borrowing to accurately state that MakerBot “stole” these ideas from the community. In a nutshell, the outrage is mostly about he act of patenting the ideas rather than the ideas themselves.

Untitled 3

The problem with the open source community is that it is, by design, not owed anything for its work, yet expects utmost deference to be paid. To be clear, Linux could have never gotten off the ground without the community that surrounded it. But that does not mean that every business based on open source tools (provided that business returns the various and direct changes to open source code when applicable) must grovel at the feet of a self-designated cabal of protectors.

The same can be said of 3D printing. MakerBot itself was an early proponent of open source hardware and, over the years, has made its money selling products that work better and more stably than most open source and home-brew printers. However, like Red Hat and Ubuntu, at some point equal deference must be paid to the gods of commerce. Those who have printers should be able to sell prints from their machine to those that do not have printers – this is the basis for services like MakeXYZ that allow customers to request prints using a streamlined process – and there are countless others who will brave the perils of prior patent art to try to build the next great 3D printer. In fact, a quick perusal of Kickstarter shows us a few dozen 3D printers already in their final stages of funding as well as a 3D scanner that looks surprisingly like a MakerBot Digitizer.

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.57.42 AM

The open source community is vociferous and prone to throw victims on the fires of their collective wrath. But this ethos is always tempered by time and the improvement of the OS product in question. When an open source printer and open source 3D software is as solid and usable as offerings from Form 1 and MakerBot, I will most likely switch. Until then, as a weekend tinkerer without the time or the energy to invest hours into maintenance and software tweaks, I’ll have to keep investing the so-called mean giants of the industry. I think 3D printing is changing the world and open source printing is at the forefront of this effort. But I don’t want either party to enter into the spiral of recrimination and FUD that once characterized the Linux world. The 3D printing evolutionary tree is open to all comers at this point and today’s giants might be tomorrow’s roadkill. As the bard once said, the wheel’s still in spin.

More TechCrunch

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €284M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

1 day ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions