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Patenting Geometry

This is a guest post from Daniel Davis he is an architecture PhD candidate and blogger at nzArchitecture.com/blog/. In this post he investigates the Evolute´s moves to patent whole toplogies of shapes, potentially preventing architects building these designs without first applying for a licence.

I personally ask Daniel to have his post added to Designplaygrounds because we are both interested in opening a discussion regarding this subject to our comunities.

When Google brought Motorola last week many speculated it was for their 17,000 patents. Patents are valuable arsenal in the wreckage of a broken patent system. In daily posts, the tech blogs have been documenting the buildup of 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:

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, which is:

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.

Now there is a case for patenting geometry. Architects have long argued, particularly in practice lead research, that designed objects contain tacit knowledge which 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 and as such constitutes unique and specialised knowledge, which 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 can not 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 it is shrewd to defer the cost of Evolute until the construction phase of projects since $1000 for a patent durring the construction of a million dollar roof lacks the pain of paying $1000 for software upfront (to use on one project).

This could be Evolutes 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

This article has just a couple of days and has elicited a strong reaction over at nzArchitecture.com/blog/ , so far all of the respondents believing Evolute has gone to far in their patents. Also important to mention this post has already generated a response from Evolute which I strongly suggest you to read so you can also have their point of view and make a better judgement , Daniel has also provided a response that you can check in the comments of the original post. We would like to hear what you have to say about this, please leave a comment below would be interesting to create a wrap up from all the opinions of the community.