republished from law.com
Three-dimensional printing is starting to have its moment in the spotlight. The more I learn about technology and science, the more I can’t help but think that Star Trek wasn’t too far off when the replicator could make things from no-things. Although 3D printing is its nascent stages, there are quite a few products that have been touted to show the lengths to which a revolution may take place. Everything from food to clothing to prosthetics and even, unfortunately, weapons.
At the moment, what makes all this possible is expensive printers. There are 2 lines of thought when it comes to the general availability of these printers. The first line of thinking (consumerization of 3D printers) is that printers will become so ubiquitous, like so many other technologies preceding it, that every household will have its own printer to create their own products and works of art. The second and more prevalent line of thinking (industrialized 3D printing) is that 3D printers will be industrial grade products that only select companies will truly be able to reap the benefits that these printers have to offer. In turn, some folks think that a 21st-century industrial revolution is upon us where companies make cheaper products and more people have access to higher quality goods.
Whatever way 3D printing goes mainstream, the bigger concern is what happens to all the intellectual property laws that currently protect product design, process, and branding when the 3D revolution really takes place? How will brands protect their intellectual property? It seems as though they may not be able to because of the sheer amount of violations that would take place. At the moment, there is no system that can police these printers so people are free to make what they wish.
Intellectual property was created to protect the rights of the maker, seller, and user against each other and other competitors. However, what the technology of 3D printing is creating is a blurred vision of all three. It may be difficult to identify the infringement, and it will be impossible or even impractical to enforce the laws.
For example, my creation of Michelangelo’s David will inherently cause me to be all three parties at the same time. Does this mean I have protection against myself in my individual capacities or that there is no protection at all? It seems as though the latter applies which will send ripples throughout the manufacturing industry. To that end, Gartner predicts that there will $100 billion in intellectual property losses by 2018 from 3D printing.
The thought that intellectual property law will clash with 3D printing to disrupt society on a scale that rivals the Industrial Revolution is a real threat. The threat comes from the idea that intellectual property laws were created to protect and control industries and brands. However, those protections and controls are of little use when 3D printing is able to democratize the creation of products for the benefit of society and the detriment of companies. This potential digital piracy situation is comparable to the way the internet changed the movie and music industries for copyrights, trademarks, and illegal downloads.