3D printing technology will be an intellectual property nightmare

Existing IP laws are ill suited to cover the emerging technology of 3D printing

In his short story collection Overclocked, sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow posited a world where 3D printing technology had crashed the world economy. While we are a far way from that worst-case scenario at present, businesses would be foolish to ignore the potential ramifications of the new technology on intellectual property. 

IP law has always been slow to change, especially when compared to the speed of technological innovation. It struggled to keep up with digital distribution developments in the software and music industries, and it is unlikely that Congress will be forward thinking enough to consider 3D printing as it develops future IP legislation.

Make no mistake about it, 3D printing is a technology that is developing rapidly and has the potential to create a massive headache for a wide range of businesses, both large and small. Traditionally, manufacturers have protected their products with a combination of copyrights, design patents and trade-dress protection. But 3D technology strips away most of these existing protections, allowing anyone with a digital blueprint and a 3D printer to make copy after copy of a particular item with a minimum of overhead.

3D printers can create objects out of dozens of materials, including metal, plastic, nylon and more. With the right 3D blueprint file, a commercial or home printer can create a variety of end products, from airplane parts to working firearms, from household products to works of art. 

Smaller companies, like individuals who make their own crafts to sell on Etsy, for example, are less likely to have even minimal protections in place. And, with the advent of 3D scanners, the ability to develop digital blueprints from an existing item is getting easier. So what can companies do to prevent pirates – or ordinary people who want to save a buck – from churning out copy after copy, and bringing us closer to that economic dystopia that Doctorow envisioned?

Companies can, of course, attempt to sue the infringers, but if people are merely printing one or two copyrighted objects at a time, this makes little economic sense. And it’s likely that 3D printers will be viewed in the same light as VCRs or tape recorders – you can’t sue the manufacturer of the device for the wrongdoings of individual users.

Attorneys Elizabeth Ferrill and E. Robert Yoches, writing for Wired, have several suggestions. They recommend keeping the innovation cycle so far ahead of the curve that people are eager to buy the newest items rather than wait for 3D blueprints. They also recommend aggressive enforcement of IP, serving notice that infringers should be wary. Finally, they suggest developing an authorized blueprint to sell to owners of 3D printers to create an additional revenue stream.

One tool in the arsenal of copyright holders could be the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which can be used against those who are offering to 3D print goods based on protected IP. HBO successfully used the DMCA to force a company to stop making phone chargers based on the Iron Throne from the show Game of Thrones.

So, while we may be in a brave new world of 3D printing, it’s safe to say that owners of IP are not out of options. Winter may be coming, but there is still hope.

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