Patenting Geometry

Daniel Davis – 29 August 2011

When Google bought Motorola last week, many speculated it was for their 17,000 patents – a valuable arsenal in the wreckage of a broken patent system. In daily posts, the tech blogs have been documenting the buildup of patent portfolios that guarantee mutually assured destruction (MAD), while the tech giants call one another trolls and play a high stakes game of chicken. For the most part it is entertainment. A tragedy rather than a comedy, for it is sad to see the economy’s great technological innovators competing with the unintended consequences of laws rather than competing with better products.

Today something caught my eye in the latest update of Kangaroo (the geometric tool that allows you to do some pretty nifty stuff with real time physics). It was a minor update to improve compatibility with Grasshopper but one line of the release notes, tucked away in a very small font, caught my eye:

note : regarding the planarization functions – I have been asked to draw your attention to the patents held by Evolute, Helmut Pottmann and RFR:
http://www.evolute.at/technology/patents.html

On first glance this seems innocent enough: parts of Kangaroo do similar things to the Evolute tools (see videos above) and Evolute probably just want to make sure Kangaroo isn’t flat-out copying them. However, this is not what the patents assert. The patents actually protect a specific type of geometry that has the following three qualities:

  • It is freeform (non-periodic)
  • It is panellised with planar quadrilaterals or hexagons, or made out of developable strips.
  • It is used in the construction of buildings or boats.
    (see full details of the patents here)

Yes you read that correctly: Evolute didn’t patent their way of generating geometry, they patented the geometry itself. The videos above demonstrate that Kangaroo and Evolute generate geometry using totally different methods – Kangaroo in a bottom-up manner through physical principles and Evolute by applying mathematical rules in a top-down manner to pre-existing surfaces. Even though these methods are totally different Evolute asserts ownership of all freeform surfaces panelised with quads used in architecture, independent of the production method. If you manage to create one of these surfaces with Kangaroo, or even accidentally in Autocad, you legally have to apply to Evolute for a licence to build the structure.

Are you fucking kidding me.

In some instances there is a case for patenting geometry. Architects have long argued, particularly in practice led research, that designed objects contain tacit knowledge that is as valuable as the explicit knowledge generated by hard science. For instance, the design of a car body is the manifestation of a long string of design investigations, which constitutes unique and specialised knowledge that should have patentable protection. However, patenting everything with four wheels and an engine would be absurd. Yet Evolute has done this. They have not patented their method of creating surfaces, they have not patented the geometric output of their software, they have patented a whole shape topology.

I suspect, I hope, Evolute cannot defend these patents because of prior art, but I am not a lawyer and clearly a real lawyer has advised Evolute they are defensible. Their defence could set a disastrous precedent. Other companies will try to cash in like Evolute and patent other topologies of shapes, architects will have to ensure their designs (while conforming to the other legislative constraints) do not infringe on these patents, large architecture firms will buy patents as ‘protection’ and very quickly architecture could go down the same unproductive path as Apple, Google and Motorola.

Whether the patents are defensible, whether Evolute has the right to do what they did, does not absolve it of being a douchbag move.

Up until about 8 hours ago I considered Evolute to be a good actor in the community; they shared their research with others and they released a free (if severely crippled) version of their tools. But this is like calling a farmer generous for feeding his animals. Evolute fattened the market for their patents through these ‘good’ actions, while only a few weeks ago they began telling Kangaroo et al. about the patents (despite holding the patents since 2007). In some ways this is a shrewd move by Evolute. Architects have a limited budget for software and Evolute are effectively pushing the cost of their software into the construction phase – paying $1000 for a patent durring the construction of a million dollar roof lacks the pain of paying $1000 for software upfront.

This could be Evolute’s legacy. All of the mathematical innovation out-shined by a single legislative innovation. I personally would much rather see Evolute making money and innovating in the tools they produce, innovating in the way they consult, innovating in how they teach in academia and industry workshops. It is sad to see Evolute (like the economy’s other great technological innovators) competing with the unintended consequences of laws rather than competing with better products. While there is a case for patenting geometry (particularly geometry with embodied knowledge) being able to patent a geometric primitive is wrong. It is even worse to take advantage of this ability and set a dangerous precedent in the process. Until this is fixed I would be cautious of working with Evolute, there is the real possibility you would hire them to refine your geometry, and then when you went to build the geometry they would try to sell you a licence to build the refined geometry. Hopefully by speaking up we draw attention to Evolute’s practice and form some sort of consensus around how to prevent someone patenting the cube. Seriously.

I am very interested in:

  1. Whether you think Evolute has crossed the line here
  2. How you think patents of geometry should be handled
  3. If you have been approached by Evolute regarding these patents

Leave comment with your thoughts or get angry in your own forums and leave a link.

31 August 2011: Evolute posted a response on their blog, claiming that they are not patent trolls. My response can be found in the comments section of this post. I removed the claim that Evolute “quietly added a licensing section to their website,” this was inaccurate, they have had a licensing section since 2010. Interestingly the Wayback Machine has caught their initial licence fee: no more the 1% of construction cost, or a 10k payday on a million dollar project….

3 September 2011: Daniel Piker, the creator of Kangaroo physics, has posted a considered summary on his blog of his relationship with Evolute and what this means for Kangaroo (full-steam ahead basically).

23 December 2011: Be sure to checkout Lee’s comment way down the bottom of the post. He points out the patents are only applications and the applications are being challenged.

And some discussion happening elsewhere:

  1. Grasshopper forum has a pretty active thread.
  2. Lorenz Lachauer points out in his blog that a Swiss architect controversially patented a housing topology in 2007. Perhaps this will be come a common thing?
  3. Dimitris at object-e in a blogpost.