Thursday, April 25, 2013

Market, Patents, and Pirating: A Look into the Future of 3D Printing

In lieu of my recent post about 4D printing, I was asked by an acquaintance about the implications patents could have on the emerging 3D printing industry. He posed a hypothetical illustrate an instance in which issues might arise which sparked deep thought process about what we might see in the future of 3D printing:
"A mechanic needs a part to make repairs and can "print" the part at a much lower cost than what it would cost to purchase the part from a company."

First, we must address how the market will react to the ability to purchase and print parts and other objects at home. The market will eventually correct itself. This is similar to what occurred in the market when online shopping first appeared. People could browse many products quickly and buy items at a reduced cost from the comfort of their home. As this became popular, the market changed and began catering toward online shopping. As 3D printing becomes more prevalent and affordable, I believe we will start to see things such as presented in the hypothetical occurring. Thus, the market will be forced to shift once again to encompass this new outlet.

This new market also presents an entirely new hurdle for patent-holders and inventors alike. I believe that patent-holders and companies will continue to hold the patents on their parts and products but will license the right to sell them as 3D printable objects out to sellers, much as software developers license out their software to 3rd parties. This only addresses patent issues to a small degree though. "[Relevant] for reproducing 3D objects, patent law does have a novelty requirement. Patent law does not allow for parallel creation. Once an invention is patented every unauthorized reproduction of that invention is an infringement, whether the reproducer is aware of the original invention or not." (Michael Weinberg, "It Will Be Awesome if They Don't Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology")**. Therefore, there is almost limitless opportunity for users to unknowingly violate copyrights.

Once products and parts have been reduced to CAD (Computer Assisted Design) files, pirating and illegally obtaining them will be easy for the computer-saavy. We already see pirating of software programs, games, music, etc. How long will it be until people are able "steal" entire physical devices or products from their computer chairs. Though, generally, the average citizen will pay for a product if they can. This will likely still hold true in the advent of 3D printing, especially if the paid-for product is of higher quality than other wise be acquired.

A quote from Mr. Weinberg's article sums up this discussion nicely: As "[t]he line between a physical object and a digital description of a physical object...begin to is keep a vigilant eye on these policy debates as they grow. For [t]here will be a time when impacted legacy industries demand some sort of DMCA for 3D printing."

**To read Mr. Weinberg's article in full, visit

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