The Future of IP in a 3D Printing World

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3D printing’s ultimate disruption will happen when people can make things with almost any functionality away from industry control.

According to a Gartner research report,  it is estimated that consumer use of 3D printing could have the potential economic impact of $100 billion to $300 billion per year by 2025.” Can you imagine all the tens of thousands if garage fabricators whom will be producing new products or…..a universe of custom modifications to existing parts! It boggles the mind and at the same time makes one think about how patents and licensing IP will be impacted by the 3D printing revolution?

The Gartner Group brought up this question in their report and estimates that “As democratized manufacturing increases and the once-clear line between manufacturer and customer blurs, demand for physical products will drop if customers can make such products themselves. Gartner’s prediction of $100 billion per year in worldwide 3D printing-related IP losses seems to be based not only on infringement of IP rights but also on intellectual property that will never be bought.” Indeed, the report goes on to explain that as demand for physical products drops and customers 3D print what they need, the data needed to make such products will become the licensable commodity and not so much the product.

copyright patent trademark

3D printing’s ultimate disruption will happen when people can make things with almost any functionality away from industry control. Indeed, Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge has said: “Most of the physical world is not protected by any type of intellectual property.” Most 3D printing away from industry control will be perfectly legal. However, the same cannot be said about the drawings used to create products.

The Dreaded 5 “I’s”

When anyone can 3D print things with almost any functionality away from control, IP rights will suffer the dreaded “five Is”:

  • Infringement–when anyone can 3D print things with almost any functionality, the risk of IP infringement away from control will increase.
  • Identification–infringement away from control will be increasingly difficult to identify.
  • Impractical or impossible–it will be increasingly impractical or impossible to enforce IP rights against infringement away from control, or there may be no effective IP protection for the product in question.
  • Irrelevant–IP rights will become increasingly irrelevant. They will exist and be enforceable for 3D printing infringement within control but will be largely impotent for 3D printing infringement away from control.

On the flip side, consumers may find that ad-hoc 3D designs and products may lack the quality and durability of controlled industry produced 3D products. Indeed, safety could become compromised in some non-controlled 3D printed products and naturally segment certain products for production outside of industrial controls.

IP Rights may become Inadequate for customized Products

As digital blueprints become the currency of commerce, rather than physical products, mass customization may replace mass production. IP rights–particularly patents and copyrights–may be inappropriate or inadequate to protect customizable products.

The Possible Resurgence of Branding

Industry experts such as Melba Kurman and law professors Desai and Magliocca view brands as saviors in a 3D printed world. They believe that the added value that brand owners can offer will be forced to provide (to survive) will lead consumers to continue to want and even demand authentic branded products. Kurman believes that: “As manufacturing becomes more decentralized, ironically, consumers will demand more reassurance that the 3D-printed goods they are buying are safe to use and will perform as advertised. The power of a brand name will increase in importance.”

Other industry observers and analysts disagree about the extent to which 3D printing will be adopted and change the world. Some believe that almost every home will have a 3D printer. Others find this highly unlikely. Some believe that independent fabricators will 3D print most of what we want or need, while others believe that large companies will use 3D printers to do this. However, as with most markets, consumers will be the ultimate determinate in how IP may be shaped by the 3D printer era just now dawning. Will there be a large demand for generic, “Knock-Off” parts and products or will the industry leaders be able to add value to protect their IP through market demand? As one IP Attorney put it: “Litigation will point the way on how 3D printing will impact the value of IP.” Given that the average IP infringement lawsuit can cost up to $200,000, we can imagine a technical solution to the problem rather than a legal one. But at this point, more and more manufacturing is branching out to agile solutions using 3D printer where applicable. Indeed, the paradigm now is to produce short runs of prototypes until a product gains traction and then outsource to more traditional long run production.


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