Is 3-D Printing the Next Threat to Intellectual Property?

Need an extra pair of sunglasses? No problem, make a copy of the ones you have. Or better yet, download the blueprints for new and improved frames and print them in your favorite color. It may sound like science fiction, but a rapidly developing technology called 3-D printing is making this all possible.

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3-D printing uses an additive manufacturing technique, stacking materials to create items.

Unlike traditional manufacturing processes, 3-D printing does not cut down or reduce materials in order to create objects, but instead uses an additive process, stacking layers of plastic, metal or other materials to build the item.

With small, portable desktop 3-D printers, such as The Cube printer from Staples, or Makerbot’s The Replicator, becoming available and priced as low as $1300, the technology is quickly positioning itself within the modern household.

However, as consumers are increasingly more able to replicate and create their own products, the likelihood that both businesses and consumers may, knowingly or unknowingly, commit intellectual property infringement grows as well.

3-D Printing, Consumers and Intellectual Property

In the world of 3-D printing, this infringement can occur in a number of different ways. The printed item itself may be protected by copyright. Or, using scan and copy to reproduce an item, such as sunglasses, may also replicate a trademarked logo. Furthermore, the designer of a unique item may have obtained copyright protection, or even a patent, on the blueprint design that instructs the machine.

Although there has yet to be a monumental lawsuit or court decision to set a precedent for consumers and contributors in this evolving industry, specific items and their origins have come into question.

So far, companies such as Paramount and HBO have opted to use cease and desist letters and/or take down notices, rather than lawsuits, to prevent consumers from creating, copying and selling licensed materials.

In February of this year, HBO sent a cease and desist letter to Fernando Sosa, who had modeled and marketed an iPhone dock based on the iron throne from HBO’s series Game of Thrones. Sosa complied by discontinuing the sale of his unique design file.

In a similar matter, Paramount sent a cease and desist letter to Todd Blatt, who had created and offered for sale a cube-shaped object similar to an alien technology featured in Paramount’s film Super 8.

“It’s purely just a fan creation and only one exists,” Blatt said. However, he did comply, stating, “I don’t want to sit in a courtroom for the rest of the year.”

Other consumers and inventors may not bend so easily. When Golan Levin’s son became frustrated with the inability to connect his Legos to K’Nex, Levin created the Free Universal Construction Kit, a set of designs for more than 45 objects that serve to make the two toys compatible. Levin and his co-creator, Shawn Sims, have not yet received a cease and desist letter from either Lego or K’Nex, although Levin has made statements indicating he would not intend to comply, should the situation arise.

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As 3-D printing becomes more accessible, “fan art” designs such as a Game of Thrones iPhone dock or replicas of unique items featured in movies have come under licensing scrutiny.

“We should be free to invent without having to worry about infringement, royalties, going to jail or being sued and bullied by large industries. We don’t want to see what happened in music and film play out in the area of shapes.”

Intellectual Property and 3-D Printing Development

In addition to these disputes over media-inspired objects, lawsuits may arise over the development of the technology itself.

In one such instance, a small startup, called Formlabs, raised over $3 million through a Kickstarter campaign to produce a consumer printer and was quickly sued by 3D Systems, who claim the Formlabs machine utilizes a 3D Printing process involving lasers called stereolithography, which was invented and developed by 3D Systems. Although the two companies are currently engaged in settlement talks, Formlabs has publicly declared it will press ahead with production of its consumer printers.

Solutions for the Future of 3-D Printing and IP Law

When technologies such as Napster threatened the music business, the industry responded by targeting individual infringers with litigation before finally developing services such as iTunes to monetize the digital download platform.

So how can companies and consumers prepare for the future of 3-D printing?

To prevent digital copying, a group of researchers at Virginia Tech University is experimenting with nano-inks, which could allow companies to “tag” products and prevent counterfeiting through a scan and print technique.

Another option is for companies such as HBO to team up with designers such as Fernando Sosa, either buying the designs for their unique creations or sharing the licensing rights, and profits.

Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit organization that advocates for an open internet, recommends that companies look to the past for advice. Rather than use litigation to quash the new technology, he recommends companies seek the best ways to profit.

Although the future of 3-D Printing remains unclear, the speed and excitement surrounding the technology suggests it won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

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