3D printing could trigger intellectual property wars, legal expert says

If consumers have 3D printers in their homes, what will stop them from violating copyright?

If 3D printing fulfills the potential that some have predicted for it, the technology could plague some businesses with the same intellectual property nightmares that struck the music and film industries after the introduction of Napster, according to one legal expert.

John Hornick, a partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner law firm in Washington, DC, said at the recent Inside 3D Printing conference that 3D printing could bring the “demise of intellectual property” for companies that sell unique, manufactured objects that can be easily reproduced in a 3D printer.

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Take, for example, a toy manufacturer. One consumer can buy one toy, bring it home, use a Microsoft Kinect’s 3D-scanning capabilities to obtain a design, enter that design into a desktop 3D printer and create multiple, identical copies. This means that one person with a 3D printer could control sales for an entire city block after making just one purchase, selling knock-off Tonka Trucks on street corners the same way people sell bootleg DVDs today.

“If you can print the dump truck at home, it doesn’t have to be a Tonka [brand] dump truck, so that disrupts the market for the trademark issue as well,” Hornick said at the event.

Of course, businesses are already aware of the potential, and threats, of 3D printing. But at this point, it’s unclear what they will be able to do about it, Hornick said. Similar to the unsuccessful, and occasionally unflattering, attempts by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to stem music piracy with litigation, manufacturers will have trouble policing illegal counterfeiting after the introduction of at-home 3D printers.

“IP will be ignored, and it will be impractical or impossible to enforce if you can print things away from control,” Hornick said.

Even the potential solutions to these issues pose their own legal problems. To counter what Hornick called “counterfeiting on steroids,” manufacturers could embrace 3D printing and begin selling protected design files instead, allowing the customers to print legally obtained products on their own. But, in that business model, retailers may have trouble protecting themselves from legal claims involving the products after they’ve already been printed. Even when using the right design, not all products created in a 3D printer come out perfect. Hornick pointed to a bicycle helmet as an example. If a company sells the 3D print design for a bicycle helmet and it breaks while in use, is the company legally responsible for any bodily harm or medical bills?

Historically, transformative technologies have presented wide-reaching legal issues as they become mainstream. The 1984 lawsuit pitting Sony vs. Universal City Studios, otherwise known as the “Betamax case,” saw the U.S. Supreme Court rule that the use of VCRs to record television broadcasts would not cause infringement. Similarly, in 2011, the Recording Industry Association of America sought $75 trillion in damages after winning a copyright infringement claim against file-sharing service LimeWire. Although the judge overseeing the case denied the request, calling it “absurd,” the case represented the legal complexity of the previous decade in the music industry.

There are those who believe that the current hype around 3D printing will far exceed the reality over the next few years. Even after authoring a report predicting that the price of enterprise-grade 3D printers would drop below $2,000 by 2016, Gartner research director Pete Basiliere said that he doesn’t think the technology will catch on with consumers as widely as some expect.

However, Hornick believes that the excitement is too high for the technology to be ignored anytime soon.

“Whether it’s this year or next year or any year after that, these are going to come into homes, and things will change a lot faster,” he said.

And while some have pointed to the advantages of traditional manufacturing for mass production, Hornick said consumers may not be too concerned with that.

“They also say 3D printing will never be able to reach mass-production scale, and maybe that’s true,” he said at the event. “But I don’t think it matters, because if you can make what you need when you need it, then mass production won’t be needed.”

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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