3D Printed Cells Bowl - Math Art by @Dizingof

A 3D Printed Bowl

3D printing was until just recently treated as a cross between a novelty and a science fiction fantasy. In the course of just a year 3D printing has found a rightful place in innovation and design with printers available for as low as $1,000. The technology is exciting with unlimited creative potential. It does, however, come with a risk for existing products, designs and content.

Printers  can be used for everything from creating prototypes to executing full production runs (If you want to see some interesting samples, check out printer maker Makerbot‘s website thingiverse.com), usually with the help of a computer aided design program. A  3D scanner can also be used to create a digital plan from a physical item and might soon be able to actually produce an exact replica of an item.

For those of you not yet familiar with the technology, 3D printers enable a designer to turn a blueprint directly into a physical product. And not just a single item. Like any other printer, it can manufacture thousands of them at a time. The printer assembles products layer by layer, as opposed to creating individual parts that must then be assembled. This means that items are produced as finished products that can continue any number of intricate parts that would be difficult if not impossible to put together. In what is perhaps the ultimate sci-fi twist, a 3D printer would actually be able to replicate itself.

3D printing is a truly disruptive technology that raises all manner of intellectual property issues. To begin, are 3D products produced using a printer covered by patent law, copyright law or a combination of both? Patents are generally understood to cover physical “things.” Copyright covers creative works, including patterns and designs. To understand the difference between patents and copyrights, it’s often helpful to look at a DVD. A patent covers the DVD. Copyright covers the content on the DVD. Copyright protection attaches automatically to original creative works. Patents do not attach automatically. They must be applied for and granted.

So, let’s break it down…. If you have developed and patented a widget, you’re covered. However, patents cover only assembled products, so replacement parts or components are usually not covered. This means that the parts that comprise your widget may not be covered by your patent, and can be copied. That’s a process made much easier all of a sudden by means of a 3D copier.

Copyright is a little bit dicier, but the  specific design and/or pattern of your widget should be covered automatically by copyright. That’s your creative content. But here’s another curve ball. Physical products that are modeled on your products are not covered by copyright or patent protections.

You’ve by now seen that copyright and patent protections are complicated and far from black and white. They were also created well before the advent of our digital world and have been slow to adapt.

At present, there’s nothing like Digital Rights Management (DRM) for the physical world. What would happen for example, if entrepreneurs start producing and selling replacement parts or accessories en masse for existing products covered by patent laws? As of now, that’s legal, but with 3D printing the ease of creating and manufacturing those parts is infinitely easier. The ease of tinkering and producing products with a 3D printer may also increase the potential for users to inadvertently infringe an existing patent. Potentially, the manufacturers of 3D printers could be held liable for contributory infringement – their devices made possible the infringement.

What’s perhaps most mind blowing about 3D printers is that they enable you to turn your ideas directly into products. The technology compresses the time frame of developing and manufacturing new products, upsetting and mashing up the world copyright and patent protections. In the years a the challenge will be to protect existing products and creative content while enabling new technologies to flourish.

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