3D printing is the next great hope… depending who you ask.
Additive manufacturing or “3D printing” is a technology that allows for the creation of objects (both new or “copies” of existing objects) from a digital 3D blueprint and a substrate that can be successively deposited in layers. It is almost certainly a transformative technology that may disrupt current paradigms in a number of sectors. One very thorny issue that companies, governments and lawyers are facing is the interplay between intellectual property (IP) rights and replication. The current rise in the availability of consumer 3D printers makes it easy for virtually anyone to make potentially illegal copies of protected goods. Is it possible to support this technology yet protect the IP rights of inventors, designers, artists and companies?
There are many ways that IP is protected. Patents protect how an invention works, design rights protect how something looks, copyright protects creative and artistic works and trademarks protect a brand. All IP protection is similar in one respect at a very high level; it attempts to make it illegal to reproduce something for commercial gain without the right to do so. By the nature of the technology, patent and copyright law stand to be the most affected by 3D printing.
It is easy to understand how 3D printing technology could run afoul of copyright laws. One example is the reproduction of a sculpture by someone other than the artist. The creators of original artistic works are granted the exclusive rights to make copies or reproductions of their artistic works and to sell those copies. Accordingly, 3D printing is akin to the illegal file sharing that the recording industry faced with the rise of MP3s and other electronic music files.
Understanding how 3D printing could affect patent law may be less straightforward. For example, using 3D printing to create a replacement part for a patent protected product may be permissible under the consumer’s right of repair. You should be able to repair or replace that broken widget in your kitchen/car/radio however you wish without fear of a patent infringement suit, provided that the specific widget you intend to replicate is just one component of a protected product and is not itself patented.
Beyond the making and distributing of actual printed copies of products or objects (whether or not for financial gain), there is the hosting and dissemination of the 3D blueprints for others to print on their own. If I 3D scan a patented product and create a 3D data map of it, have I infringed a patent? What if I distribute that data map for others to print? What if I change it a little before distribution so that it’s no longer the same product? In certain instances the patent rights holders may be able to sue if such actions have induced or contributed towards the infringing acts of the end user. There are similarly challenging questions for copyright protection as well.
It is clear that as the technologies advance and the costs of 3D design suites decrease, everyone is enabled to be designers and creators rather than just consumers. Current industry manufacturers are at or approaching the same kind of ‘big decision’ that the music industry faced a few years ago with copyright protection and sharing (and could be argued to have ‘got it wrong’ when initially attempting to prevent consumers from sharing any music by any means).
There is still much to shake out on the legal side of these enabling technologies. We shall be watching this space very carefully.