The rise of 3D-pringting as intellectual property

The technology of 3D-printing has made great progress, and the laws affecting this industry are catching up. A 3D-printer is a machine that builds objects, by adding (printing) very tiny layers of material on top of each other to create a three dimensional output. This technology is sometimes called rapid prototyping, but the technology has evolved beyond mere prototypes to actual production of useable parts and components. Since this 3D printing can be done in a range of materials, it is quickly being adopted as an affordable way to produce small runs of certain end use products.

3D-printing can be performed with a wide variety of materials including plastics, metals, ceramics, pharmaceutical compositions (DNA), bio-materials (including foodstuffs and human tissue).As printers become faster and more reliable, layers of construction become smaller, allowing for more sophisticated  products and materials used to produce more precise 3D end-products.

3D printing offers many advantages to US businesses, some of them not readily apparent. The risks involved with off shore manufacturing in China and India are eliminated. Quality assurance can be done in a way not practical when manufacturing  across the world, and in a different culture, work ethic, business climate and language. Manufacturing down the block also eliminates the long distance transportation costs, import/export paperwork and losses due to damage during shipment over long distances.

3D printing is greener than conventional manufacturing processes. 3D-printing is what is called “additive” manufacturing, producing significantly less waste than traditional manufacturing using the “carving out and throwing the waste away” methodology.

Another key factor is that the risk of proprietary technology being misappropriated is greatly reduced. Manufacturing down the block keeps your intellectual property under greater control. Your intellectual property is not released to a foreign jurisdiction where theft is common and enforcement is nearly impossible. Keeping your manufacturing nearby, you have jurisdiction over the manufacturer to bring enforcement activity on local courts. You can rely on the strong US laws protecting trade secrets, patents and trademarks.

However, 3D printing raises new issues in IP law. Design rights will be hard to enforce and companies will struggle with how to keep products that can be manufactured at a much lower price off the market. Copyright in digital printable files is unclear since current law only applies to the code, not what the code does. The many sharing forums allow people to share their files to be printed, and there will undoubtably be copycat .stl files developed by others for printing a product that looks like, but not quite is, the original.

3D printing is not immune from the issues facing other IP owners. Patent trolls, or non practicing entities (NPEs) have entered the marketplace.  Intellectual Ventures filed a patent on a system of Digital Rights Management (DRM)-control of 3D-printing, requiring anyone who wants to 3D-print certain files pay a license fee. An even more interesting lawsuit has been filed. 3D systems, an “established” 3D-printing business,  claims to have certain rights that would be infringed if fundraising was done by a would-be competitor who might breach those rights. In this case, the company sued Kickstarter for crowdsource funding of projects by potential infringers.

As 3D printing continues to evolve, the laws surrounding this technology and its protection will develop. It is important for those using this technology to keep abreast of the legal landscape so they don’t miss potential opportunities to protect their IP and reap the highest ROI.