As CAD design files can be passed through peer-to-peer sites and scanners can made exact copies of objects for 3D printers to create, how could any business realistically protect its product?
SAN JOSE -- When 3D printing allows anyone to scan an object and create it, the concept of intellectual property and trademarks will increasingly become irrelevant.
"IP will be ignored and it will be impossible or impractical to enforce," said John Horlicks, an attorney with Finnegan, Henderson, Far bow, Garrett & Dunner LLP in New York. Hornick at the Inside 3D Printing Conference here today. "Everything will change when you can make anything."
The onslaught against IP will begin with the toy industry, Hornick predicts.
Kids will be being able to access CAD files containing the design specifications of their favorite toys on Peer-to-Peer sites such as Pirate Bay. Or they may use scanning technology in devices like Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor, to scan an object, load it into a CAD file and then onto a 3D printer, and voila, a toy is duplicated to exacting specification.
The 'D-Tech Me' service from Disney's Hollywood Studios already allows visitors to pay $100 to get scanned and have a movie character -- like a Star Wars storm trooper or a Disney princess -- created in their image.
As the tech advances, Peer Munck, a consultant at Liberty Advisor Group, said he fears the "Napsterization" of the 3D printing industry.
Napster, a peer-to-peer music file-sharing site, turned the music industry upside down when the service, founded in 1999, let users share .mp3 files for free. The service prompted record companies and artists to quickly join in a legal battle contending that Napster infringed on copyrights. By 2001, the legal quagmire forced Napster to shutter its virtual doors.
Thus, once users start sharing CAD files with product designs that can be used on 3D printers, manufacturers may also find legal and legislative avenues to prevent infringement on their patents, Munck said.
Chris Strong, an account manager with RapidScan3D scans an attendee of the "Inside 3D Printing" conference in San Jose. The scanning technology creates an exact software replica of any object and it can be adjusted for color or other effects before being transferred to a 3D printer to create a real object, such as a human bust.
"Napster really did leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth. It was such an oversimplified and Draconian reaction [by the music industry]," said Melba Kurman, an author on 3D printing and a technology analyst. The reaction led some experts to suggest that government enforcement of IP is not the route to take in the future.
Kurman, however, believes government does have a role in protecting 3D printing IP, but not by responding to "fear-based" lobbying by industry groups.
Action figures from Disney princesses to Star Wars character Hans Solo in frozen in carbonite can be customized to look like the person purchasing them through 3D modeling and printing
On a micro level, any consumer can purchase a 3D printer and make custom products or copy existing ones - from clothing to kitchenware. No tool or die-casting is required because the printer does it all. While the quality of a consumer-grade 3D printer will not typically meet the quality of product created industrially, the technology is improving rapidly.
On a business scale or macro level, a manufacturing renaissance of sorts is set to occur as 3-D printing cuts costs, allowing companies to bring manufacturing back to domestic shores after years of turning to cheaper labor markets overseas.
At the same time, though, some other domestic manufacturing jobs may evaporate as 3D printing machines can operate 24/7 in a lights out factory.
"Future sales may be of designs and not products," Hornick said. "Major disruptions of traditional models of manufacturing, distribution and retail will occur. You would print at the point of distribution and have just-in-time printing. It makes sense to print down the block and not in another country where products need to be shipped."
Hornick also sees a time when open collaboration between product manufacturers helping each other by sharing plans and ideas.
James Malackowski, CEO of Ocean Tomo, which provides financial products and services related to IP services, research, investments, risk management and transactions, sees a day when the IP related to 3D printing may be traded like other IP is today.
For example, the Intellectual Property Exchange International today facilitates non-exclusive licensing and trading of IP rights with market based pricing and standardized terms, he said.
Three dimensional printing, however, often has multiple levels of copyright ownership, from the CAD files to the management software to the physical printer, so there could challenges in obtaining all necessary rights and reliable distribution of licensing fees to all the parties involved, Malackowski said.
"In some cases you may not even need a copyright at all," he added.
There are other legal issues as well.
If someone is sold a CAD file to print a product, and that product is faulty and causes injury, "who would be legally responsible?" Malacknowski asked.
Industry collaboration, where companies work together to ensure standardized software that is of high quality, is one possible approach. Another would to simply allow the market to set the path - with good CAD designs rising to the top and bad services dying due to lack of popularity.
"The market will set you free," Malackowski said. "Just look at Yelp! Or Zagat. It's not the city food inspector that ensures quality."
Tyler Benster, cofounder of Azavy, an online store for 3D printed items made via crowdsourcing, people don't expect to pay much for printing plans online, based on the early days of the business.
"Today, the do-it-yourself [3D printer owning] community gets designs for free," Benster said, so people won't expect to pay much if plans are offered for a price.
"I think to prevent the Napsterization of 3D printing, you need ease of use and the ability to find the specific solution you're looking for online," Benster said, citing Pirate Bay
More important, he added, 3D printing users want to cut through "the crap" design plans that are on the Internet today and just get the ones that work.
Thingiverse, a website that facilitates the sharing of user-created digital design files, has many designs that aren't printable, and that were designed by people who don't have 3D printers, Benster said.
In order to ensure they are getting quality designs, Benster said users would likely be willing to pay a buck or two like they do for music and smart phone apps today.
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.
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This story, "Will 3D printing kill IP?" was originally published by Computerworld.