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.

 

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64 comments

  • Michael Whitman 29 August 2011 at 5:57 pm

    I do agree that Evolute has crossed a line with this patent, especially if they were to start patent-trolling with it. Patenting the actual geometry seems impossible, given that it would breach the whole ‘algorithms are not patentable’ clause of the US Patent Act. (Australian Patent Law may differ on this point, as the practical application of an algorithm can be patented.)

    It doesn’t take much to get around this clause, – as a lot of software patents do so simply by replacing the word ‘algorithm’ with ‘system’. (see http://yaroslavvb.blogspot.com/2011/02/how-to-patent-algorithm-in-us.html)

    So while the patent is indefensible, it still could be used as a patent-trolling weapon if the cost of disputing it in court is prohibitively expensive. This usually seems to be the case (see Righthaven). I don’t think Evolute’s patent will have any effect on the developments achieved by the open-source/’bazaar’-style parametric design community, but if the cost of disputing the patent causes an architect/developer to choose a more modest design for a building, THAT is when I’ll run screaming and crying into the streets.

    On the brighter side, there has been news recently that the US Court of Appeals is paving the way to make it possible to invalidate bullshit software patents. I’m keeping an eye on /. for more developments.

    • Daniel 30 August 2011 at 1:08 pm

      Hi Michael,

      Thank you for the link about algorithm patents. The Evolute patents are somewhat unexpected in that they have not patented their ‘algorithm’ or ‘system’ but rather the type of geometry it produces, although many unique algorithms could produce the same type of geometry. Not sure if this is to do with the patentability of algorithms.

      I tend to agree this is not the kind of issue to run screaming to the streets about – I imagine the patents are mostly used in sales pitches pitches to demonstrate their authority of the subject, even if they are not defendible. However I think their actions became concerning when they contacted Daniel Piker about Kangaroo. That is getting pretty close to being a patent troll. It is probably enough to give users of Kangaroo pause for thought about whether they should use the tools, and it might be enough to put Daniel off developing his panelising functions in order to avoid legal issues. Perhaps mafia rather than troll? Either way it is not a healthy attitude to the community.

  • Harri 29 August 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Pretty much every timber boat in history could be described as freeform and made out of developable strips.

    The fact they asked Daniel to draw attention to the patents is worrying.

    This is what we need:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/johanna_blakley_lessons_from_fashion_s_free_culture.html

    • Daniel 30 August 2011 at 1:17 pm

      Totally agree Harri that their contacting of Daniel and asking him to put the note about their patents is worrying.

      That TED talk is totally fascinating. I had no idea fashion worked in this manner. I guess for the most part architecture has a similar system (the only case I know of is Lebius Woods & 12 monkeys), which is why Evolutes actions seem so out of place.

  • Andy 30 August 2011 at 2:29 am

    Great discussion Daniel. Thanks for bringing it up and I agree with your criticism completely. I think the litigious nature that our society has generated is going to stifle innovation for many software developers in the very near future. There is a great podcast on this exact problem that was done just a few weeks ago. Here’s a link in case you’re interested: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/441/when-patents-attack

  • Rodrigo Medina 30 August 2011 at 2:35 am

    This guys have totally cross the line I understand this company have made an investment hiring people and doing research to create a tool and its totally legitimate to try to go out and make a profit from the product you have created in the more creative way you may, but this guys have gone way beyond that just the idea of patent a geometry is stupid , In this times were people and communities have a more active role this doesn´t seem to be a smart move this could totally backfire against them.

    BTW : I would really like have to have your post featured at designplaygrounds.com as a guest post , you´ll receive all proper credits of course , if you are interested let me know

    • Daniel 30 August 2011 at 1:21 pm

      Well at the moment we are a 4 comments and 3 emails against Evolute’s actions and 0 in favour. So hopefully this sends a signal. Will get in touch about syndicating the article, would be great to open this discussion up on other forums.

  • John H 31 August 2011 at 2:41 am

    Surely you can’t patent basic geometric properties (planar quads and meshes with common normals). I’ve read the patents however and whoever approved them would obviously beg to differ.

    Shotgun e^(i*pi) = -1

    Sorry Euler, you’re dead I’m afraid. It’s mine!

  • Kristoffer 31 August 2011 at 6:26 am

    As far as I know, Daniel has been collaborating with Pottman and his team (they even credit some of his geometry in a paper). Moreover, he has specifically implemented some of their methods in Kangaroo which he also credits.
    Regarding the patents, I think the idea is something along the following: if you rationalize your favorite geometry to one of the patented solutions, your manufacturing cost will shrink by an order of magnitude. Evolute then thinks it is fair for them to claim say 10% of your manufacturing costs, something you’ve saved anyway. You can argue that it is a win-win situation.

    Now I’m not taking stands on wether or not this is a good idea, either morally or from a financial point of view for Evolute. But I know that Pottman has done a lot of research on these geometric ‘primitives’ and that without his input to the mathematical and architecture community, they might still have been hidden in the complexity in the mathematics that is involved. It is more or less impossible to just draw something in say Autocad and expect it to be say flat-panel. And if it is, it is most probably not a free-form shape!

    It is an interesting situation, in that it still exists some prior-art going back at least as far as to Robert Sauer in the 40′s.
    Interestingly, it is mostly contractors that use their software. I’d be curious to hear their point of view.

    • Corneel Cannaerts 31 August 2011 at 10:20 pm

      ” Regarding the patents, I think the idea is something along the following: if you rationalize your favorite geometry to one of the patented solutions, your manufacturing cost will shrink by an order of magnitude. Evolute then thinks it is fair for them to claim say 10% of your manufacturing costs, something you’ve saved anyway. You can argue that it is a win-win situation.”

      The problem here is that they patented not a finite set of solutions, but a whole shape topology, regardless of whether you used their software/system/algoritm, as Daniel points out.

      It’s only fair that they try to make money licencing their software but 10% of manufacturing costs is enourmous.
      Imagine Autodesk asking 1% of building costs for every project ;)

      In my opinion they definetely crossed a line with this patent, and i wonder whether it would hold in court. But considering the relative small amount of stuctures that are built using this geometry, the high costs and time presure involved, big architecure and engineering offices and contractors will just buy a licence.

  • Sean M. 31 August 2011 at 9:34 pm

    To Kristoffer,

    What Pottman and his team has been researching is not unique from mathematicians and not, by far, something that they started and not even in the architectural or engineering field. There are different people that have begun these investigations a long before he or some of his team did. The people from Asia that presented at the latest AA conference in Vienna, they started before him, but Pottman invited him in order to join investigations for another or some other papers.
    Moreover the people from Denmark, they have even published books about their research that from some odd reasons have not been referenced in Pottman’s papers, why’s that? These people started on the earlies 90′s. Actually the people from Denmark have even built small pavilions and they are currently working on a major shell-structure. What is also true is that Potmann and his teams have never been able to show a non-transitional or non-rotational surface that host hexagonal panels. So, again, how did they were able to get such patents?

    There are also some people from the MIT led by Mark Goulthorpe that did quite an interesting research about this. Celento, Glymph et al.-taken from the computer science field- put the architectural and engineering basis for quadrangular panels… Even in CAAD Futures there were some presentations regarding flat panels, which actually showed, simple but arbitrary surfaces, dealing with negative and positive G. curvatures.

    Everyone, you, me, all the people have good and bad actions, and let’s face it, this is not a good action from them, actually this speaks very bad about them. I’m even surprise that some other countries allowed them to extent their patents…

    • Kristoffer 1 September 2011 at 3:52 am

      Great discussion over here!

      I think it would be an interesting exercise – and a valuable contribution to the community anyhow, to collect and analyze work that could be regarded as prior art to these patents. I’m not familiar with the work you describe above for example, but I’d love to have a look at it.

      To me, the main difficulty is to interpret the definition of “free-form” shapes. On the one hand to claim that rotational surfaces are not “free-form” is to reduce the argument to cardinality comparisons of the functional constraints on the surface. But equally well, you can then claim that minimal surfaces are not free-form either for example.
      Not to mention that NURBS-surfaces are algebraic, etc.

      Obviously this is not the right way to approach a definition of “free-form” surfaces in architecture, but I’m hoping that a discussion of some examples of surfaces used in the past, together with their panelization could throw some light on the subject.

      • Christophe Barlieb 2 September 2011 at 10:14 pm

        Yes Kris, I think this is a key point in the argumentation: the definition of “free-form”. I would argue that you could beginning designing a minimal surface as a “free-form” and then go through the process of subdividing and relaxating quadrilaterals to arrive at a good approxiamation of a near minimal state for the built reality. My favorite example of large scale PQ’s is the Muncih Olympic stadium roof.

        I do believe SBP did patent the roof constuction method. And I do believe they had written software to process the information while F. Otto was building physical models. In fact SBP have been greatly involved with rhomboid shapes quadrilaterals and grid shell designs as has been Happold, so what exactly is “free-form” especially when it comes to design?

        I could argue that every shape or form I design or select is made with great care and intent and therefore is not “free” but constrained with logic even though it may appear irrational at first.

        Also for the record I have a lot of respect for RFR (Peter Rice was and is a hero of mine), Pottmann (I reference his work in a couple of my papers) and Evolute (basically all those hard working people that finished their PhD’s with Pottman in Vienna or Zurich or other, for leading the way on realtime PQ refinements). So this isn’t some kind of personal issue with any of these parties.

        This is simply a case that this is not really a construction method as much as it is a geometrical problem.

        As they say “a patent isn’t worth anything until it wins a court case”. Some people protect what they believe are their ideas while others sharing ideas and thus promote and genetrate a more heterogeneous environment to build on. The latter is my way, I was simply surprised when I read what Daniel had to post on the Kangaroo Food for Thought website and reacted to it, went on vacation and came back to a bunch of emails regarding this discussion.

        • Steve 3 September 2011 at 8:30 am

          Good luck for trying to patent a minimal surface which is naturally occurring in Nature. I presume teh patent trolls are going to sue Nature now? There are very tiny maount of minimal surfaces that can be described exactly mathematically; cateniod and hypar come to mind. Patent trolls are lower than bankers and lawyers in my estimation.

  • Florin Isvoranu 1 September 2011 at 1:08 am

    Interesting article Daniel ! It might worth having a look at some other opinions as well:
    http://blog.evolute.at/?p=112

    Best,
    Florin

    • Daniel 1 September 2011 at 2:29 am

      Dear Florin,

      Thank you for responding, I linked the main article to your blog post so no-one will miss it.

      I would like to address some of your points here:

      1. Regarding Evolutes disclosure:
      I acknowledge I was mistaken regarding when Evolute put this on their website, I had seen the 2010 version of the Evolute site on the Wayback machine (which doesn’t have the patent section) but not the more recent archives. The text of the blog post has been amended accordingly.

      2. Your reasons for the patents:
      I do not dispute Evolute has made a significant contribution to this field, and has a right to make money off this contribution. I even suggested some legitimate methods for doing so in the blogpost.

      3. What the patents cover.
      When I said ” the patents actually protect a specific type of geometry, which is….” I was paraphrasing Evolute’s own definition of the patents. I quote verbatim:
      “1. (A part of) the mesh follows a true freeform surface, that is, a
      surface with complex geometry beyond translational or
      rotational surfaces.
      2. The mesh (partially) consists of planar quadrilateral or
      hexagonal elements. -> PlanarPatent and/or the mesh (partially) defines single curved (developable) strip elements, as well as mixtures of such elements with planar or double curved elements. -> SingleCurvedPatent.
      3. The output data from the Planarization Module is used for the production of buildings (-> PlanarPatent and/or
      SingleCurvedPatent ) or ships (-> SingleCurvedPatent ).”

      I have read the patents and I think your summary is accurate.

      I think we can both agree: these patents are not for algorithms Evolute has designed, they are not for software Evolute has made, and they do not cover Evolute’s process of design. (this was stated in the post as well).

      In your post you claim “not the geometry itself is patented but the actual physical solution.”

      This is a remarkable piece of double-talk since the physical solution in your patents is defined by its geometric properties. Whether you patented the geometry’s construction in architecture or whether you patented architecture composed of the geometry, is semantics. The fact remains you expect all architects to apply for a licence to build architecture which meets the above geometric criteria. If this isn’t patenting geometry, then what is?

      4. Evolute is not a patent troll.
      I think this is for others to decide. I have laid my case out, which could be summarised as:

      1. Evolute does innovative research in how to design a particular type of geometry.
      2. Evolute does not patent their research into how to design this geometry but instead patents the construction of the particular type of geometry, regardless of how it was designed or who designed it.
      3. Some would argue the geometry patented is obvious and ordinary.
      4. Evolute expects a licence fee (which is probably about 1% of construction cost) from anyone who intends to construct this geometry, regardless of whether they used any of Evolute’s research in designing the geometry.

      Daniel

      • Michael Eigensatz 1 September 2011 at 8:15 pm

        Dear Daniel,

        thanks for your views and for initiating this interesting discussion. Our answers can be found in our blog post that Florin has linked above and that is now also linked in your blog. Thanks for that too.

        Some clarifications:
        - It is important to understand, that the Evolute Patent White Paper that you cite text from is NOT Evolute’s “definition of the patents”! There can only be one definition of the patents: the patent texts. The White Paper is a service to our customers, to provide an easily accessible aid in deciding when we should be contacted.

        - “Some would argue the geometry patented is obvious and ordinary.” — I would love to meet these geniuses ;-)

        - Your reasoning about calling it “patenting geometry” applies to all patents of a two- or three-dimensional object, shape, mechanism, brand,… We live in a three-dimensional world (well, at least the three are the most accessible dimensions for most of us) and as Martin Gardner said: “There is still a difference between something and nothing, but it is purely geometrical and there is nothing behind the geometry.” In our eyes calling it “Patenting Geometry” is a populistic generalization to heat up the discussion. Certain newspapers apply this strategy and make a lot of money with it. I don’t read these newspapers.

        • Daniel 2 September 2011 at 12:19 am

          Thank you Michael for those clarifications. I suspect we have come as close to a consensus as we will ever get :)

          I just want to make one clarification of my own:
          I am not trying to write popularistic tabloid pieces (as you seem to imply) and I am not on a vendetta against Evolute. If you look through past articles on this blog you will see this blog is a genuine attempt to understand and disseminate information about computational design. Evolutes patents, as best I can discern, are a novel development in the business of computational design and as such worthy of discussion. I have actively promoted your side of the story, within this article, because I think it is important readers can hear both sides of the discussion. Having said that, I am not writing an Evolute press release, so it is only natural we disagree over the language or the framing of issues. I hope the consequence of this is not that Evolute gets taken through the mud, but that people within the computational design community are informed of what is happening and perhaps are provoked into reflecting on the direction the industry is taking.

          • Trevor Patt 3 September 2011 at 12:25 am

            I’m still wrapping my head around the patenting of physical solutions but without any description of the physical properties. I’ve certainly made multiple “physical solutions” which come close to the geometric descriptions in the patent PCT/AT2007/000302. However, I would hardly call those two solutions identical in their physical solution (they do share an algorithm which generates the geometry, but then it is not patenting algorithms which we are discussing here only a categorization of results). This is what makes the language so weird to me. As an aside, in reply to Michael Eigensatz’ comment, I would also say that the math and code behind my algorithm was fairly trivial to construct (granted it is not so sophisticated as the Evolute methods, but again algorithms are not the object of the patent).

            A couple of questions I still have:
            The patent document states “support structure for free-form surfaces in buildings,” and later “curved bounding geometry in structures consisting of beam elements” which seems vague to me, does this only apply to external, weather-barrier envelopes? also to rainscreen envelopes? interior partitions? open-air, pavilions? If the panels themselves are structural without support beams is that not covered?

            “Free-form surfaces” is not qualified in the patent text in the same way as on the Evolute info page, which states “freeform surfaces (that is surfaces with complex geometry beyond translational or rotational surfaces).” In the patent text I read a description that “free-form surfaces… such as domes, or even more complex surface shapes” are used in construction, but no specification of what constitutes “free-form” under this patent. Presumably this kind of thing is not covered?

            It seems that in the physical realization, there are plenty of opportunities to slightly vary the specifics of construction (chamfering corners at the joints to make 8 or 12 sided polygons, staggering the planes somehow within the depth of the frame, adding a spanning piece over the joint such that the polygons are no longer directly adjacent, modifying the beams). Enforcing these patents against such maneuvering would almost certainly require ignoring the accidents of the built construction and completely focusing on the geometric abstraction. Presumably proving this would involve a subpoena of digital files used in the design (and not, for example, models reconstructed from as-built surveys, given the sometimes atrocious tolerances of construction). The physical solution is then only a trigger which sets off a legal process and not the object of dispute. How does this then not constitute a patenting of geometry?

            (note: posting this also on blog.evolute.at as I’m genuinely interested in receiving informed answers)

  • John H 1 September 2011 at 6:02 am

    The Roppongi Canopy completed in 2004/05 (depending on where you read about it) by Skidmore Owings & Merrill and Buro Happold seems to pre-date the supporting structure patent.

    http://burohappold.sparkdata.net/BH/PRJ_BLD_roppongi_canopy.aspx

    http://www.burohappold.com/fileadmin/uploads/bh/Documents/Capability_Statements/SMART%20Structural%20Solutions%20sml.pdf

    I may be wrong but I’m sure these ideas have been around for a while in the community and are not the sole IP of Evolute.

  • Joe 2 September 2011 at 4:55 am

    Thank you Daniel for spelling out this issue of Evolute practices.

    In fact I came to encounter the Evolute Plugin for Rhino in about 2010 and refused to use their software-product due to the companies practice of not only patenting their idea as a software product – which, when turned into a physical product would also needed to be liscensed.

    This cashing in twice attitude is utterly disgusting and outragious when thinking about the shiphull comparison mentioned above which lets one assume that Mr. Pottman and fellows at Evolute decided to claim to have invented the wheel.
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TricycleAntique.jpg)

    I hope that this discussion leads to a rethinking of Evolutes attitude towards allowing us, the fellow architects, to use the wheel and shiphull construction techniques free of charge and thus allowing all of us to enjoy these physical elements of the Public Domain.

  • Christophe Barlieb 2 September 2011 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks for informing me Daniel. Oh how funny. If anything the patent(s) should be the property of the TU Vienna. And if anything the patent(s) should only pertain to the generating process in Evolute’s software, just think how absurb life on Earth would be if the Golden Triangle was patented? As I’ve already said this patent will never stand up in court for building a structure, it could for a piece of software. However if it does apply to structures then we have a serious fight to put up. Best regards from Berlin, Christophe DM Barlieb

  • Charles VIncent 3 September 2011 at 12:37 am

    Quite on the opposite tack other Austrians are taking…

    https://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/28744

  • Charles VIncent 3 September 2011 at 12:38 am

    Also, this reminds me of a freak back in college who argued he had “invented” a colour ;-)

  • Kevin Pratt 3 September 2011 at 12:45 am

    I’m not so sure this patent wouldn’t stand up in court. If you look at it, they are not patenting geometry, they are patenting the the use of a (quite particular) geometry in certain applications – specifically in structural applications at building scale. Go search patents.google.com for Buckminster Fuller – you will see that he actually patented the geodesic dome with patent 2,682,235. He patented lots of stuff. See http://synchronofile.com/the-lost-inventions-of-buckminster-fuller-part-1-of-3/ So did Steve Baer (Zome system # 3,722,153) The Pottmann/RFR innovation is approximating a freeform surface in such a way that it can be supported by structural members that do not experience torsional effects. This is a big deal and it really does make building such things much easier and cheaper. Why should they not profit from such innovation? How is this different that inventing a new type of, for example, spring that exhibits particular structural properties because of its particular geometry? (Lots of patents like that)

    That being said, I suspect that it would be quite difficult to actually enforce the patents. The patent office in the US is particularly bad at actually checking whether or not an invention is unique, or whether or not prior art exists which would invalidate the patent. Their attitude is “let the courts sort it out”. This is an expensive and time consuming process. I’m not sure Evolute has the resources to go that route, or that there is no prior art.

    Also, I personally think that we are all better served by an open source attitude towards innovation (which is why all the work that my group does at Cornell in a totally different field – building simulation – get released under the apache open source license). But that’s my choice. Clearly Pottmann et. al. have a different attitude. Given what I know about academic salaries in Europe, I can’t really blame them.

    Furthermore, they’re not patent trolling. Patent trolling is buying up dubious patents and then suing people for infringement, hoping that they will be frightened by the potential costs of litigation into settling, even though everyone involved knows that the claims are nebulous at best. I don’t think these guys have sued anyone yet, and they did actually come up with the technology themselves.

    That said, if I wanted to build a freeform structure that might be covered by these patents, I would probably tweak the geometry such that a wee bit of torsion was introduced to the structural members – not so much that it actually increased the construction costs much, but enough to get around the patent claims :-)

    • John H 3 September 2011 at 1:11 am

      “Why should they not profit from such innovation?”

      Because the idea was already known by others and indeed used on constructed building projects before the patent and the 2006 paper (see my comment above).

      • Kevin P 3 September 2011 at 5:10 am

        I’m not sure the Roppongi canopy would fall under the patent, since I’m not sure that it really is a torsion-less structure. But if it is there you go, prior art, problems with the patent. It does bring up an interesting question though, which is how the heck could anyone tell if a structure really is violating the patent? Sounds very messy to me. What are you going to do, subpoena the digital structural model? Grab a strain gauge and start taking measurements? Obviously they can’t have a patent on a flat panelized structure in general. The patent is pretty specific about torsion less node geometry (looks like claim 3 to me.)

        The bigger question though, is whether or not something like this is “patentable” And the evidence seems to support the view that it is, even if this particular patent is invalidated by prior art. I’m kind of surprised by the general sense that this is a bad thing. I mean, who do we think is building and designing these kinds of structures? Big multi-national corporations who can afford the licensing fee. That’s certainly who the patent holders are hoping will license their technology. I suspect that if you used the technology to design build a school in Africa they would either leave you alone or grant you a license. For every story you hear about some faceless corporation crushing a startup with patent litigation, there”s another about some faceless corporation taking an idea and profiting from it without compensating the inventor. I actually think the way they have set it up is a good thing – they aren’t going to after the designers per se, the claim would, as far as I can tell, center on the builder and owner, which, as a designer, I think is much more reasonable.

    • steve 4 September 2011 at 9:41 pm

      Why?

      You really are a numpty.

      If i discovered the rule of deflection being proportional to the value of stiffness and applied load; should i copyright that?

      Every time I as an engineer calculate the required thickness and profile to support your architectural whims i also need to consider how much i need to pay to the owner of “copyright to stiffness vs load” then why would i bother?

      Do you think evolute didn’t proposer form the work of thousands of mathematicians before they released their software? Who invented vector geometry? I say evolute need to pay a percentage of their patent to that persons family. Also, differential calculus. Surely their is a member of Euler deserving of a percentage,

      Do you honestly think Evolute didn’t piggy back on the endeavor, and inspiration of hobbyists before them?

      They are the worst of the worst, trying to patent geometry. Dear god.

    • questions 9 September 2011 at 1:45 am

      you seem to know a lot about patents: could you please give me some help on how to understand this technical report about one of evolutes patents

      http://www.wipo.int/patentscope/search/docservicepdf_pct/id00000012565347?download

  • Mentioned 3 September 2011 at 9:29 pm

    [...] Patenting Geometry on Daniel Davis’ Digital Morphogenesis blog [...]

  • Federico Negro 5 September 2011 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks David for bringing this to light… Do you have a link to the actual english-language patent for US and UK? I’d like to take a look.

    Thanks

  • Florin Isvoranu 7 September 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Daniel and All, again, thanks for bringing this into debate, thanks to your post a number of interesting questions came up, which we answered in our latest blog post: http://blog.evolute.at/?p=152

    Best,
    Florin

    • Daniel 8 September 2011 at 12:12 pm

      Thank you Florin, I think these questions – particularly the one about freeform surfaces – help clarify the patents. I linked to the post from the main article.

      Daniel

  • Tristan Dean Forward 8 September 2011 at 10:18 pm

    I received an email from one of my professors this afternoon regarding this article and an essay I had written on the topic. It forms, along with my pre-thesis paper, the basis for my thesis, which I shall be undertaking next year as I have deferred from study at The University of Melbourne. In case it is of any interest, I have attached the essay here.

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/27413303/Beware%20%27Super-Authors%27.pdf

    It’s interesting to me, because they asked us to be “visionaries” and forward a possible future scenario, and just months later you wrote this. Feels a bit strange.

    • Daniel 13 September 2011 at 8:07 pm

      Tristan, your premonition has come true (partly).

      It is an interesting link you draw between the complication of authorship using computational design methodologies, and the legislative enforcement of authorship. Perhaps this is the larger picture to this narrative.

  • MoMA 9 September 2011 at 8:28 am

    This guys have totally cross the line
    what is this posture, patenting freeform architecture,
    soon we will see mathematical formulas patenting, really soon
    what a joke, I’m architect and i was surprised to see this attitude
    and it is not defendable of course.

  • Andre 10 September 2011 at 3:32 am

    Super-interesting issue and discussion here, Daniel – thanks for launching it! (Mark called my attention to it just yesterday in London.)

    What all the posts above seem to assume – and what the Evolute site would lead you to believe – is that these patents have actually been granted. However, a bit of digging around – e.g. http://assignments.uspto.gov/assignments/q?db=pat&pub=20100162637 – shows that apparently they are still in the application stage, at least in the US. (Or please correct me if I’m wrong on that.) So I think it’s still quite possible that they will be disallowed eventually. Still, the affair does raise some very sticky issues.

    • Daniel 13 September 2011 at 7:39 pm

      That is some valuable sleuthing Andre. It certainly seems Evolute has not yet been issued the patent in the US.

      I can’t work out the European one but I note the Evolute brochure says they have ‘filed’ for a patent rather than ‘were issued’ a patent. Perhaps it is Evolute: patent pending.

  • Mentioned 11 September 2011 at 12:07 am

    [...] softwareproducenter kunne have patent på en geometri? Det startede på Daniel Davis blog: Digital Morphogenesis, der i forbindelse med en opdatering af Grasshopper applikationen Kangaroo, udviklet af Daniel [...]

  • Jess 14 September 2011 at 5:36 am

    IMHO this is pure patent trolling. Here in Germany a patent has to be a *new* technical solution and based on your invention. Also you cannot patent any mathematics or other discoveries.

    I’m doing this kind of architecture for more than 10 years. http://rhino3.de/design/modeling/developable/architecture/index.shtml Coming from the marine industry this kind of construction design is really the obvious!

    Also I’m teaching this stuff for about 6 years. Here you’ll find the intro lesson about rationalization. In the deeper engineering studies the students learn how to build that stuff: http://de-de.de/lectures-and-workshops/rationalization/

    So far I have not seen any architecture like that done by evolute. I don’t know what problems they have and actually I don’t care – as long they will not get into my way. But I’ll forward this to some who may not like that at all…

    Jess

  • Ted 14 September 2011 at 4:29 pm

    guys,

    Jess is right, there’re so many prior examples that haven’t been mentioned, we should seriously consider what the actual invention here is. Built examples of doubly and singly curved building (please add to the list), Kresge Auditorium at MIT, TWA Terminal, the Philips Pavilion, Torroja’s Hippodrome and his thin shell roof, Fisac’s lost Pagoda, Niemeyer’s egg, Candela’s restaurant at Xochimilco, and so many other Nervi’s work in addition to the ones Jess mentioned… even this book on Stereotomy by Edward Warren written in 1875 (free on google books) has detailed, however manual and archaic, methods of solving architectural problems related to Warped Surfaces, Developable Surfaces and Doubly Curved Surfaces through descriptive geometry.

    Means might be different but the idea of rationalizing complex shape into developable surfaces has a long history, there simply isn’t any invention here.

    However, the patent is for the application of rationalizing freeform surfaces into planar n-gons (3,4,5…) and its supporting structure. Yes it seems as though this topic has been the holy grail and their work had certainly inspired many of us in the community, but the innovation is strictly with the algorithm. Make your money through selling software. Ed Catmull didn’t charge the entertainment industry every time they use Sub-D surface to make characters. Why do you think you can open up a precedent that will essentially change the course of the architectural profession?

    In fact, even if don’t know a thing about programming nor even use 3d software, but i’m good with my mayline and pencil and I can do descriptive geometry like no other. You will prevent me from putting a nice domed canopy because I can simply solve the PQ problem by hand, panel by panel.

    This patent is atrocious, much like how the Patent Office is issuing patents for DNAs for plant life and animal life, and now architectural geometry is claiming a piece of this?? In my opinion, not only have they crossed the line, their actions are offensive.

    Given the fact that this issue is only circulating around the Rhino community, we need to spread the word an raise a red flag to every architectural and structural firm we know of. We need to get the big boys to fight them, what office in the world want to pay a licensing fee for their own design work? I certainly don’t want to wait 20 years before the patent goes into public domain but we might just happen if we don’t act.

    Ted

  • Jess 14 September 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Hi Ted, I could add five more buildings to the list which we have solved with the help of Rhino and my own tools. On these buildings I’ve applied all kind of construction design they are trying to claim patents on. http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=lou+ruvo&f=hp , http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=all&q=myzeil&m=text

    I’ve never found their work inspiring. Nothing new, just studies of existing stuff. And if I look really close I can see all sort of errors. Even the patent appears to be a contradiction in itself. I think it will not survive any appeal. So maybe the whole issue is just a strange marketing campaign to get some attention?

    Jess

  • Ted 15 September 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Hi Jess, it’s been a long time! Yes I agree their work is so much about the old material paradigm that I really didn’t pay much attention to it till I found out about this patent.

    It can be revoked, and many patents that falsely claim and cite their prior art do. Take a look at this.

    http://www.pubpat.org/Protecting.htm

    • Jess 15 September 2011 at 7:36 pm

      Hi Ted, thanks for the link! I’ll forward it to my clients but I don’t think they need help. They have pretty big budgets for the law-side and in the end the looser will pay it all…

      Jess

  • Michael Sprinzl 15 September 2011 at 11:02 pm

    first question: did you have a publication of this issue in a paper…..
    second question: is this of general interest in mathematic field…..
    third question: did this exists in nature … and the mathematic world…
    fourth question: is this remapped fom one field to another…
    ähmm has Edwin Catmull from Pixar any rights for his algorithmen… context shifted on this figures….

    yes…
    yes…
    yes…
    yes…
    no….
    we european do not care….

  • Kevin Atkinson 22 September 2011 at 3:57 am

    A very discouraging development. I’m a big fan of Helmut Pottman, so this is distressing. Moreover, I recently wrote some software that planarizes semi-regular, mostly-hexagonal meshes:

    http://methodart.blogspot.com/2011/08/another-experiment-with-generating-semi.html

    It uses much the same approach as they do — taking a nearly-planar mesh, and using a penalty method to optimize for planarity. Now I’m concerned I would be regarded as infringing were I to pursue its use.

  • Mentioned 19 December 2011 at 4:18 pm

    [...] the debate that followed the majority felt Evolute was unethical, and Evolute responded essentially by telling the [...]

  • Lee 22 December 2011 at 5:01 am

    A few observations:

    1) The “patents” referred to are only patent applications, which may or may not grant. The applications should not be referred to or represented as ‘patents’. Whether the applications indeed do become patents depends on the applicant’s interaction with the Patent Office, a process called ‘prosecution.’ To date, there are no rights granted to the applicant here at all whatsoever. There may be rights that are retroactive *IF* the applications go to grant.

    2) Both applications are having trouble in the prosecution process. They are being challenged by the USPTO on grounds of prior art (someone did it before), obviousness and indefiniteness (lack of precision in claiming exactly what the invention is). All information about these applications is public, given that they are published applications: http://portal.uspto.gov/external/portal/pair.

    3) Patents aren’t inherently evil or counterproductive, and it’s important to understand the fields of patent law and IP commerce before forming judgments on why and how companies use their IP. See http://dcipattorney.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/IAM282008.pdf
    Note: I am not one of the authors of the piece listed here, nor am I affiliated with them.

    • Daniel 24 December 2011 at 12:11 am

      Thank you Lee for contributing this – it is great to hear from someone who knows what is actually happening.I put a note refering to your comment in the main post because I fear it will be burried down here. I hadn’t realised the applications were being challenged, so it will be interesting to watch and see what happens with them.

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