Penrose Triangle Sparks Debate About What Defines Invention

Penrose Triangle Sparks Debate About What Defines Invention

The first 3D printing copyright scandal raises new questions about intellectual property law.

Dory Carr-Harris, PSFK
  • 23 february 2011

For those of you who don’t know, the Penrose Triangle is one of those “impossible objects”: a two-dimensional figure that the eye automatically interprets as three-dimensional – like M.C. Escher’s stairs, in other words, an optical illusion. Therefore, it is not surprising that this object was one that enthusiasts were eager to try to 3D print.

Deemed hopeless, the blogosphere was abuzz when a few days ago, Netherlands-based designer Ulrich Schwanitz claimed to have succeeded in printing the object, but wouldn’t reveal his method. The challenge was on to figure it out, and 3D modeller Artur Tchoukanov was the first to crack the code. He posted his solution and schematic and was therefore “wrongly” credited by BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow as the initial creator of the object. This sparked an Internet squabble that was eventually resolved, but unintentionally raised some interesting questions about the definition and source of invention, further debated on i.Materialise. Questions like: what defines invention? Intellectual Property law rules on the side of the “documented inventor” therefore, Artur would be the victor of this battle, yet it is clear, in this case, that Ulrich was the 3D object’s original creator.

Joris Peels at i.Materialise explains more:

Ulrich was first, of this there can be no doubt. But, he did not disclose his solution. Artur did. If we make a parallel 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.

i.Materialise: “Who invented the Penrose triangle?”

Boing Boing: “3D printing’s first copyright complaint goes away, but things are just getting started”


Dubai And The Future Of Humanitarian Design

Design & Architecture
Op-Ed Today

Fitness Advocate: Paving The Future of Workouts With Audio

Ethan Agarwal, CEO of Skyfit, shares how he's democratizing access to boutique fitness classes through an app

Food Today

This Beer Was Brewed Just For Scotch Drinkers

Highland Park Scotch Whisky & Sixpoint Brewery have teamed up to create two limited-edition pairings for New York City boilermakers


Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Mobile Today

Let An AI Librarian Help Sort Your Digital Bookmarks

A new app uses machine learning to help organize your virtual life

Mobile Today

Pizza Hut Tattoo Lets You Place An Order From Your Body

The latest gimmick from the fast-food chain is a tattoo-like sticker that lets customers get delivery with a simple tap on their arm

Related Expert

Adam Wells

Design Thinking For Travel (& Space)

Travel Today

Reinvented Bicycle Inspired By Supercar Design

The yellow bike based on a Lamborghini has sharp edges and an aluminum alloy frame

Health Today

Health Platform Gives Perspective On Your Weekly Habits

Gyroscope is a new wellness app that works by amalgamating data about your life into beautifully designed visuals

Beauty Today

Korean Beauty Brand Uses VR To Let Customers Pick Their Ingredients

Innisfree created a unique experience for its Shanghai Disneyland customers with a virtual reality trip to select what goes into their purchase


Future Of Automotive
Scenarios Driving The Digital Transformation Of An Industry

PSFK Op-Ed Today

Community Builder: How to Hack Slack

Claire Wasserman, Founder of Ladies Get Paid, describes how she's using an internal team communication tool to build a network of thousands

PSFK Labs october 21, 2016

PSFK Picks: Top 5 Performance-Enhancing Wearables

Our new report looks at innovations pioneering the future of performance through intelligent activewear and predictive analytics

Arts & Culture Today

3D-Printed Creations Resemble Floating Paper Outlines

Japanese design firm Nendo's exhibition features works that look like sheets of material being folded, torn, and crumpled

Technology october 21, 2016

Concept Camera Designed To Only Take Unique Photos

Camera Restricta is tool that prompts photographers to only capture one-of-a-kind images

Technology october 21, 2016

Fragrance Will Release The Smell Of Data If Your Private Information Is Being Leaked

The device is designed to create a physical cue for the potential dangers lurking online

Retail october 21, 2016

LYNK & CO Is A New Auto Brand That Promises Mobile Connectivity On Wheels

Online access and mobility sharing are driving the company to disrupt the auto industry

Gaming & Play october 21, 2016

Nintendo’s New Console Pushes For Portable Gaming

The Switch allows gamers to seamlessly play on the go by themselves or with friends

Travel october 21, 2016

Become A Citizen Of The First Nation In Space

Asgardia is a new concept for a floating society above Earth

Entertainment october 21, 2016

Speaker Displays Song Lyrics As Music Is Played

The device is able to generate the graphics on a translucent screen and retrieve the words from a connected database

AI october 21, 2016

Travel Assistant Scans Your Emails To Make Planning Easier

This AI add-on will sync with your inbox and sends reminders to make sure you don't miss anything important

No search results found.