Industry Market Trends

Spread of 3D Printing Raises Intellectual Property Questions

Apr 30, 2013

As 3-D printing technology enables more and more users to fabricate components, and potentially entire products, from home, protecting the rights on patented designs could form the next major intellectual property conflict.

At the White House Science Fair this month, President Obama shook hands with a fully operational robotic arm that cost a few hundred dollars' worth of parts, all of which (except for some motors, screws and gears) were generated from a 3-D printer. Made by 17-year-old Easton LaChapelle, of Mancos, Colo., the 3-D printed arm was inspired by the hope of replacing an $80,000 prosthetic arm of a young girl he had met.

Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, can take computer-aided design (CAD) information and build or print a physical object layer by layer. Instead of ink that prints documents, a range of materials, including plastic and metals, can be sourced into the 3-D printer and used to form physical objects.

As the cost of 3-D printers continues to decrease and exciting open-source designs become more widely available, do-it-yourselfers like LaChapelle are taking advantage of these new opportunities, adopting 3-D printing for all kinds of applications. However, the proliferation of massively customizable 3-D printable designs may come to pose a significant problem in regard to intellectual property (IP) rights.

"It will surprise no one that technology capable of reproducing physical objects may trigger a number of intellectual property (IP) related concerns," Michael Weinberg, staff attorney for Public Knowledge, a non-profit organization that upholds and protects the rights of consumers to use innovative technology lawfully, told IMT. Weinberg focuses primarily on copyright issues before the FCC and on emerging technologies like 3-D printing.

3-D printed objects are potentially covered by a combination of copyrights, patents and trademarks. Should an innovator like Mr. LaChapelle reproduce a patented object without permission, he risks violating those rights.

"For my purposes with 3-D printing, I am just getting my ideas to the right level to patent them," LaChappelle told IMT. "Most people think that if you made something on a 3-D printer the world has your ideas and that's far from true! The current arm I've been working on is very protected and because it's all original files it makes having IP on your designs very easy. Although 3-D printing, for me at least, is only a platform for prototyping, it's supposed to get you to a point that you're able to prove that everything works properly. From there I believe that patents come in and make everything yours."

To understand the often complex arena of IP security and appreciate how a violation might occur, it's important to understand the legal definitions associated with IP. Copyrights cover creative works, patents protect technical works, and trademarks cover how goods are identified in the marketplace.

For copyright law, think creative works - those which are written down, filmed, painted, and recorded. Copyright is automatic from the instant it is "fixed in a tangible medium," and lasts a long time - the life of the author plus 70 years.

Patents, on the other hand, protect inventions, systems, or compounds that are new to society and usually made by scientists and engineers. A patent lasts 20 years. Thus, in purely functional items, an item including its plans and documents, whose patent has expired can be freely 3-D printed.

"Right now, in our IP regime, [which includes] copyright and patent, there is not some sort of fatal blind spot in them that 3-D printing can exploit," Weinberg said. "There are plenty of problems with copyright, there are plenty of problems with patents, but I don't know that there are, right now, 3-D printing-specific problems with either of those."

One of the things Public Knowledge focuses on as an organization is avoiding the creation of new types of copyright or patent restrictions in response to 3-D printing. Weinberg feels that would be a shortsighted reaction to this technology. He believes many of the ways people could react to 3-D printing would have a significant cost and make 3-D printing much less useful going forward. Because the kinds of concerns people might raise are hard to address through legislation, it would have a high cost and low benefit and thus be ill-considered.

However, some of the things that 3-D printers can make are protected by a patent. The act of fabricating these objects would be a violation, just as if they were made in a machine shop. While a patent-holder may be worried about infringement, the spectrum of potential violators today is currently limited, yet it's likely expand dramatically in the near future.

"What we're seeing now is potentially a change in scale," Weinberg noted. "I don't think we're there yet - but where the difference could possibly occur, is the scale."

A totally wide open, general purpose technology that allows for innovation and the creation of new novel things, like a 3-D printed prosthetic arm, also enables the creation of things that may or may not infringe on a patent. On balance, society is much richer for the technology. Still, the IP road could prove legally bumpy in the days ahead.