3D printing patents are expiring: what does it mean?

3D Printing Patents Are Expiring: What Does it Mean?
John Hornick, IP lawyer and 3D printing expert

As I explain in my book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, 3D printing has been around for about 30 years, which means that some of the earliest patents in this space are fond memories.  From 2002 to 2016, about 225 3D printing patents expired.  More 3D printing patents will expire in 2017.

By John Hornick

When a patent expires, the invention goes into the public domain.  The current U.S. patent term is 20 years from the date the patent application was filed in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  But don’t assume that every patent necessarily expires 20 years after its filing date.  When in doubt, ask a patent attorney.

Meet John Hornick

John Hornick, author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World
John Hornick, IP lawyer and 3D printing expert

John has been a counsellor and litigator in the Washington, D.C. office of the Finnegan IP law firm (one of the large IP firms in the world) for over 30 years, where he has litigated close to 100 IP cases. John founded Finnegan’s 3D Printing Working Group and advises clients about how 3D printing may affect their businesses. John frequently speaks and writes on 3D printing and has been recognized as a thought leader in this space. He is the author of the book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, which won a Silver Award from the Nonfiction Authors Association and has been called a “must-read” offering “rare insight into how 3D printing is redefining what can be designed and manufactured.”  His articles have been published at 3DPrintingIndustry.com, in the Journal of 3D Printing & Additive Manufacturing – where he serves on the Editorial Board – and in Wired Innovation, and he writes a column for 3D Printing World. He was the only IP attorney selected by the U.S. Comptroller General Forum on Additive Manufacturing (which is the basis of a report to Congress). John has served as a juror for the International Additive Manufacturing Award.

The technology covered by a patent is defined and limited by its claims.  A patent is infringed by making, using, selling, offering to sell, or importing a machine, component, product, or process that falls within the scope of its claims.  So for expired 3D printing patents, the only technology that can be used safely, without infringement, is the technology covered by the claims and nothing more, not even improvements on the technology.  In other words, an expired 3D printing patent gives only the right to use that specific 20-year-old technology.

For example, consider Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent.  After it expired in the late 1800s, anyone was free to use the technology covered by its claims.  But telephone technology has come a long way since then, generating thousands of patents.  The freedom to use Bell’s technology doesn’t amount to much when the technology has long been surpassed.  So are expiring patents for old 3D printing technology changing either the industrial or consumer 3D printing industries?  For the former, probably not much.  For the latter, an uncountable number of startups are making Material Extrusion, Vat Photopolymerization, and Powder Bed Fusion machines.

Even though many old 3D printing patents have expired, there is no shortage of patents and published applications in the additive manufacturing space (about 12,000).  Approximately 8,000 utility and design patents have issued that relate in some way to additive manufacturing.  Since 2000, approximately 4,000 applications have published that relate in some way to 3D printing.  New applications are being filed all the time.  Importantly, although many of these patents and applications cover incremental improvements to old technology, others cover basic advances and whole new ways of making things.  Again, today’s telephones are far different from Bell’s.

So making, using, selling, offering to sell, or importing a 3D printer that does anything beyond the scope of the claims of an expired patent may infringe some other patent.
There is no quick and easy way to know if an additive manufacturing machine or process infringes a patent.  Before making, using, selling, offering for sale, or importing any machine or component, or using any additive manufacturing process, ask a patent attorney if you’re concerned about infringement.

John Hornick is a partner with the Finnegan IP law firm, based in Washington, DC (www.finnegan.com), and author of the award-winning book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World (available on Amazon). Any opinions in this article are not those of their firm and are not legal advice.