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.