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Public Knowledge today published a white paper, “It Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology,” which examines how intellectual property (IP) law impacts the rapidly maturing technology of 3D printing, and how existing industries which feel threatened by its growth might try to use IP law to stop it.
An executive summary of the paper is here.
The full paper is posted here.
The issue page on the PK site is here.
In its simplest form, 3D printing is a way to turn bits into atoms, translating computer design files into real life objects. Although this technology has existed for some time in high end design firms and research facilities, new, open source 3D printers are finding a way to make this technology widely affordable and available.
The report, by PK Staff Attorney Michael Weinberg, found that the ability to print objects on demand has the potential to be just as disruptive as the ability to summon digital information from anywhere in the world. Users can scan a 3D object, modify it using free, easy to use software, and print out a new version at home. The printer can print moving parts, so items like assembled ball bearings can be made in a single print.
According to the report, the ability to design and manufacture your own objects potentially impacts any number of existing businesses and industries. In the fact of this disruption, many businesses will innovate and adapt. However, businesses (and industries) unwilling or unable to adapt may go to Congress to ask for increased IP protections for everyday items. Following the playbook of the recording and motion picture industries, they will also label 3D printers tools of piracy, and their users as thieves, the report said.
Widespread 3D printing will likely have more of an effect on patents than on other intellectual property laws because patent protection is not automatic like copyright protection, and its protection lasts far shorter than copyright, it still may present challenges. Because there is no fair use-style provision in patent law as there is in copyright, if someone uses a 3D printer to produce a patented object without authorization, that person could be sued for infringing on the patent no matter their motivation.
The report said that: “The purpose of this report to alert the public and policymakers to the issues raised by a technology that is still in its infancy, much as personal computers were in the early 1970s. Existing industries could demand radical reformation of intellectual property law, or the creation of entirely new types of intellectual property, when confronted with widespread 3D printing. Public Knowledge calls on the public to be aware of attempts to cripple 3D printing through unwarranted expansions of intellectual property protections.”