3D Systems just sued everyone who’s cool

Pebble.  LIFX.  TikTok. Plus hundreds of art projects.  Film projects.  Games.  What do they all have in common?  As of yesterday, they’re all being sued by 3D Systems — at least in the court of public opinion.

Yesterday, 3D Systems, one of the largest producers of 3D printing systems, sued both Formlabs and Kickstarter.  Formlabs is the upstart that launched a gorgeous stereolithography 3D printer (as seen above) on Kickstarter to win development funding.  The apparent foolishness of 3D Systems’ management in launching a legal attack on Kickstarter is appalling.  In one short-sighted move, 3D Systems just rendered itself both “evil” and “irrelevant” to both a core group of customers plus a much-wider ancillary market.

Let’s be clear:  I can forgive 3D Systems for suing Formlabs.  Using a badly-out-of-date patent system to try to delay a nimbler and more agile upstart competitor seems to be standard-operating-procedure for slow moving, “hamfisted” corporations.  That’s just the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship in our modern day world.  And I believe that, generally, the population at large would feel a great deal of pity for Formlabs, but probably not outrage.

However, suing Kickstarter demonstrates a complete lack of marketing savvy or any sort of cultural sensitivity from 3D Systems’ corporate leadership.  Kickstarter has engendered a huge amount of goodwill, particularly in the “maker community,” the grassroots folks who are among the most vocal proponents of 3D printing technologies.  How could a CEO ever possibly think that suing a neutral facilitator such as Kickstarter will bring any long term benefits to their company?  And it is just so blatantly vindictive: Formlabs hasn’t shipped anything yet, and Kickstarter only takes a modest cut of the “funding” amount.  The legal bills will surely far exceed any possible monetary remuneration. It will be a hugely expensive “tax” shot squarely at Kickstarter.  3D Systems must surely be viewing this as an opportunity to choke potential funding for any other entrepreneurs who might want to develop competitive 3D printing technologies, even at the expense of all of the other artists and entrepreneurs in unrelated categories who depend on Kickstarter.  And this is the root cause of the coming shitstorm for 3D Systems, a backlash from the design community-at-large.

The technical, legal liabilities of “selling” infringing property, or whatever the specific legal case 3D Systems is trying to slap against Kickstarter, is irrelevant outside a courtroom.  The fact is that the wide majority of the population will view Kickstarter as a neutral third party being needlessly attacked by 3D Systems.  3D Systems might as well be suing Santa Claus for delivering infringing 3D printers on Christmas morning.  The backlash against 3D Systems will surely cost them far more goodwill than any monetary compensation or temporary market “protection” they might ever win.

A similar example is the LIFX program on Kickstarter.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m pretty sure a bunch of lighting companies should be, to phrase this nicely, “conducting licensing negotiations” with LIFX.  And if LIFX launches without any patent licenses, then by all means competitors should sue.  But it would be appalling and silly for any lighting company to sue Kickstarter, especially before LIFX even ships a single lamp.  What good would that bring to anyone???

A post like this should be the worst nightmare of any CEO, and this was entirely self inflicted by 3D Systems.  I’m not even directly in their industry, yet I feel the need to write an outraged post.  3D Systems’ actions will do nothing to impair the competitive positioning of Formlabs, and all the free publicity will only help raise their exposure.  I pity the sorry sucker who is the CMO at 3D Systems in charged with cleaning up the mess caused by a strategy surely put forth and advocated by the their legal team.   Know what the worst part of this post is?   Notice how I included a nice big image of Formlabs‘ gorgeous product design?  Do you see any images of 3D Systems’ products???  Do you even see a link to 3D Systems site?  Ouch.

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About Brad Koerner

Venture Manager - Luminous Patterns Philips Lighting
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