As the tools of manufacture become available to more people through 3D printing, we are going to see an increasing number of products that are very similar to each other hit the market/internet at exactly the same time. The whole issue of patents, ownership and attribution of ideas is also going to become increasingly complex as simultaneous innovation occurs.
We recently featured The Canon Capholder by Spruce (above right) on the Shapeways blog, citing it as a great example of a simple solution to a common problem for all photographers, be they amateur, professional or accidental. At about the same time as Spruce posting his final design on Shapeways, so to did Kitlaan on Thingiverse (above left) and Mark Stevenson on Kickstarter (bottom) having already raised $14,623 after seeking only $3,900 in backing. There was a little bit of a flurry on the social networks as to which if any of the designs were a copy of the other and it seems as though all three were developed simultaneously without being aware of each others designs.
Now photographers have been losing lens caps for 150 years now and it was not until the means of production has been put into the hands of the users that we finally have a simple solution. Camera manufacturers have know it is an issue but instead of coming up with a simple solution to store the lens cap, they instead sell replacements caps.
Now three people around the globe have solved the problem with one looking to take it to mass production, one selling 3D printed versions via Shapeways and the other releasing the STL and the parametric SCAD file under a creative commons license. Mark Stevenson (taking it to mass production) has apparently applied for a patent for his design but there are already these two examples, and at least two other variations that make aesthetic and functional variations on the creative commons licensed design. Even if he has been developing for 9 months and testing for 3 additional months he may have difficulty obtaining or enforcing a patent when all of these variations are already out in the world. Will the Shapeways 3D printed version reduce the potential income of the mass produced item and is it worth perusing considering he has already mitigated the risk thanks to the Kickstarter backers. Would owners of DIY 3D printers forgo $15 when they can squirt hot plastic into the form of their own lens cap holder which could be customized to double as a bottle opener?
All in all an interesting example of the speed of innovation brought about by 3D printing. That a user’s needs can be met immediately when the user designs a solution for their exact needs. They do not need to buy a generic lens cap holder but can 3D print exactly what they need in the color of their choice.. Take that Henry Ford.
Do you think the patent will be awarded to Mark Stephenson? Should it be? Is it time to re-think patents? What can we do to allow for simultaneous innovation?
UPDATE: Thanks Paul KIng, it seems Nikon has a 2009 Patent that they have just announced early July 2011 for a slightly more advanced lens strap arrangement…. The design is a lot more complex and it seems the patent may be on the mechanism not the use? This could make it a little more interesting…