A few days ago Ulrich Schwanitz claimed to have 3D printed a Penrose triangle, hereto thought to be impossible. The news appeared on FastCoDesign. Ulrich did not want to disclose his secret and wanted to let people guess. Designer Artur Tchoukanov saw the post and managed to come up with a solution. He explained this through renderings and shared the solution on Thingiverse. Then Boing Boing posted about the solution. So who invented the 3D printed Penrose triangle? Was it Artur or Ulrich?

Ulrich was first, of this there can be no doubt. But, he did not disclose his solution. Artur did. If we make a paralell to Intellectual Property law and Ulrich claimed to have invented something but Artur disclosed it in a patent application, then Artur would be the inventor. Even if Ulrich could claim that there was prior art. This might lead to Artur not getting a patent but it would not lead to Ulrich getting it. Ulrich decided to keep his invention a trade secret. The risk you run when you do this is that someone else could, in the meantime, invent your trade secret. IP law is on the side of the “documented” inventor not per se the person who came up with something first.  

So while the honor of making the 3D printed Penrose triangle should clearly go to Ulrich. It might be that Artur invented it. What is invention? Is it the explanation of something? The sharing of knowledge? A documented first? Should the person that puts something online be credited?  And in the case of the Penrose triangle that dates back several hundred years how can we possibly troll through all the information to determine what exactly is prior art? Who invented this triangle? Well actually it might be Oscar Reutersvärd in 1934. This would mean that neither Artur nor Ulrich is the inventor.

The Penrose triangle story is an important one. If we all have access to the same information and if this information spreads near instantly across the globe this kind of thing will happen much more often. In this case all the parties were blameless. Artur never wanted to usurp Ulrich”s invention, he simply wanted to solve an interesting topology problem in his spare time. It was fun. But, the implications for innovation, design and manufacturing are enormous.

How would you prove that you were first with an invention or an idea? How would you document this on the internet? Just recently for example a person used a quote of mine without attributing it, again a fairly innocent example. But, if they post it on Twitter first while my quote is on a blog somewhere it is Twitter that would seem to be more authoritative. Why because Twitter lets you keep track of when something was posted, and lets others check this.  In fact Twitter”s greatest value is in establishing a timeline for content on the internet. For many things you can trace back the origination to a tweet and check when this idea was made.  If someone would want to check who made the quote, the proof would point towards the other person. Because I would have difficulty proving when exactly I posted my blog post while the other person could point to a Twitter status with an exact time and the content of the quote.

If we move towards a 3D printed world where many things can be replicated, copied and produced within hours the timeline of invention would be crucial. The intellectual property implications of living in a world where no one could be sure who made what when, are terrifying. We must reward innovation and we must recognize talent and creation when we see it. I am sure that Ulrich, Artur and myself all feel passionately about this. We must create a culture of attribution and develop mechanisms as to who invented what and when they did this. For designers, inventors, authors, artists and thinkers to be able to profit (in the broadest sense) from any of their creations we must attribute and we must develop ways of recognizing invention.

Far from being obscure, the 3D printable Penrose Triangle Conundrum points to the single biggest challenge for a 3D printed world. How to attribute invention and reward the inventors of this world. In a world where manufacturing is scale free and we can “copy paste” anything we need to solve this problem. How will we solve it?

This is how I ended the post a few hours ago, but meanwhile a DMCA Takedown notice was sent to Thingiverse to remove Artur”s solution to the Penrose triangle. So Ulrich thinks he has copyright and is forcing Thigyverse to remove the file that Artur created. I”m lost. But, this reaffirms me initial belief that we need to sit down as a bunch of grownups and have a discussion about the implications of this.

  • Gijs

    Interesting read. I was surprised to see the triangle on thingiverse and immediately thought this was going to give some rumor. Personally I believe that the least Arthur could have done is what Duann did: post a link to the original.
    Disclosing the secret is not unethical but putting the copy on thingiverse in my opinion has nothing to do with the disclosure of a secret. When I saw the triangle, I was intrigued and built it in Rhino. With the image it was easy. The simplicity of the model is what makes it so brilliant. It was Ulrich that put time and effort in making the model. Which is now undone in a couple of days by putting it on Thingiverse. And that just does not feel right to me. The fact that Arthur put the model on Thingiverse does not make him the inventor, because he could only post that model after seeing the original. And since there is just 1 possible solution to the illusion, it makes Arthurs model a copy. The same as it would be to reverse engineer the beautiful MGX collection, buy an EOS and sell them on the web for half the price.

  • Joris


    Exactly, that is also what this post and also this one is about: http://i.materialise.com/blog/entry/a-3d-printed-world-needs-a-birth-certificate-for-ideas

    But, Artur never wanted to be the inventor. It was “hey this is my solution” is it correct? Hey, Ulrich did I solve your riddle? Yes, or no? And isn””t the process you described simply a question of Artur getting inspired by a photograph? We never claimed Artur invented and we were always clear that Ulrich was first. Also by having it for sale Ulrich was the one that could profit from the sales of the triangle.

    As for the ethics of posting the file. Thats an interesting point. Would it have been better if he would have 3D printed it and shown the solution? In what cases would it be OK to show and/or make the file? Would it have been OK to make the file but then link to the original? I””m not sure if there was or wasn””t a link though since the page is not there anymore because of the DMCA. And is there but one possible solution? I mean its topology?

    I””m glad you like the .MGX collection. But, isn””t that more unique than this? Or do you see the cases as identical? We also want to protect our creations and care a lot about our inventions and IP, I think as a company we have more to lose in this space than almost anyone else. So we are very interested in the protection aspect. And I””m pretty sure that if you would have copied the .MGX collection we would have undertaken legal steps against you. I just hope we would have been civil about it. So where is the line between original, inspired by, copy and derivative? When would you for your own work consider a derived work a copy? When would you sue?

    The DMCA take down was a bad PR move by a person lashing out. It proves that the current IP system is inadequate to protect inventors. Because here we are and we still don””t know who invented what. And I am cognizant that we need a functioning IP system to let inventors and designers make money in the 3D printed world. In fact, if someone asked me, “Joris, you can make one wish to make 3D printing go forward, what is that wish.” Then my answer would be, “an IP system that balances the needs of creators to get credit and profit from their inventions with the public””s need to spread innovation.” The machines, the materials, the 3D design tools, scanning it will all solve itself whereas this IP question as well as the liability question will not.

    So I want to remain calm about this and want to say to myself, “Joris this is more your fault than anyone else””s because you blogged about it first.” Just see it as an academic discussion. This will be good in the long run. But, the one thing that does annoy me about this is, why not just send an email? Why not pick up the phone? I want to think about this clearly but I was very angry with the DMCA take down because of this aspect. I””m not a hard person to reach. Especially lately, its not like I””m hiding in a cave somewhere. By using the DMCA take down in first instance what they””ve done is harmed the position and rights of designers everywhere. And that sucks. We should actively all assert our rights, we should all try balance sharing with giving someone their due. But, lets please be civil about it. A DMCA should be a thing of last resort. I””m going to sound like your second grade teacher again, but “why can””t we all just get along.” Lets focus on making this 3D printing thing happen for all of us.

  • Gijs

    I completely agree that using DMCA should be a last resort. On the other hand I do believe that Ulrich has some rights over the model if (and only if) his 3d model is the first ever to represent the penrose triangle as a closed shape. As I said, I was intrigued by the photo on shapeways and from the photo I could clearly see how it was made. It then took me just a few minutes to construct it in Rhino. But now comes the important part, still based on the first assumption: although the penrose triangle was drawn in 1934, it took 77 years for someone to come with a 3d solution. And let””s not forget the fact that Ulrich had clearly described that there were no hidden openings or twists. Two important clues, which together with the photo where you can see the wall thickness of the print, have made it very easy to remake his invention.
    As to answer your question, aren””t the .MGX more unique? No I don””t think so, as many of them are derivatives of shapes found in nature and mathematics. It was the visionary thinking of designers like Janne Kyttanen and artists like Bathsheba Grossman who have been pioneers in adopting 3d printing that made them and their designs famous. Many of the designs found in the .MGX collection aren””t new in a strict sense, yet they represent firsts in using the technique to come with such shapes which were difficult or impossible to create before 3D printing existed. And that””s something we should honor and respect. They have inspired many people to start designing (not copying) products that have been impossible before. The same applies here too. People should get inspired by other peoples work and not copy it. A derivative should improve or add something unique. Now luckily Jonathan has come with an improvement, which for sure has been stimulated by the protection of Ulrichs work. IP is there to protect creative and (hard) working people and at the same time stimulate other people to improve. 

  • Désolé, mais je suis le créateur du triangle d”Oscar Reutersward en 3D en 2005;
    J”ai déposé à l”INPI en France cette sculpture optique réalisée en aluminium et en bronze. La date de dépôt est le 31 octobre 2006 sous le numéro : 273707

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