3D Printing: IP Killer or IP Game Changer
3D printers are rapidly evolving. 3D printers have already become available for home use and the price of these home 3D printers is continually dropping. Soon 3D printers will evolve to allow the use of multiple materials when printing. Some have speculated that increased home use will turn mass production into production by the masses as digital files become more readily accessible. It is believed by some that a limited ability to control the sharing of digital files will render IP unenforceable, eventually killing IP as we know it today. However, such a view seems to overlook several factors involved in how products are manufactured and how consumers purchase these products.
First, software will limit the ability to achieve production by the masses. In today’s society, software drives much of our technology. For example, while it may be feasible, in the future, to print the hardware required for an iPhone®, the iPhone® still requires a substantial amount of software to operate. In fact, knockoff iPhones® are already produced overseas, yet these knockoffs are limited in sales because they lack the desired iPhone® software. Without access to such software, the ability to 3D print an iPhone® becomes meaningless.
In the 1990’s, Napster became notorious for providing free downloadable music files. The music industry did not take kindly to this and subsequent lawsuits followed. Eventually Napster, and other similar websites, was shutdown leading to the pay per file model that we see today when purchasing music and/or other media. Similarly, Apple® would not sit idly by while individuals pirated its software. While Apple® may allow consumers to purchase this software through legitimate sites, such purchasing would take place in a controlled environment and Apple® would still require a great deal of copyright and patent protection over its software. Additionally, Apple® would exhibit a great deal of control over the digital files that would make 3D printing of the iPhone® possible, thus further enforcing the need to protect such hardware with patents. Perhaps in the future, individuals may be able to 3D print iPhones® at home; however, such production would certainly require access to the software and digital files through proper sources, i.e. Apple® would still get paid for such production. Of course, this would not eliminate the need for mass production of iPhones® as the cost, time, and uncertainty involved in 3D printing an iPhone® would likely drive many consumers to purchase their iPhone® through normal channels.
Second, the “IP is dead” conclusion neglects brand loyalty. Would a Rolex® aficionado be willing to wear a Rolex® produced by anyone other than Rolex® itself? While 3D printing a Rolex® at home may sound appealing to some, most Rolex® consumers appreciate the prestige of wearing a fine piece of jewelry. Would a Rolex® 3D printed at home have the same quality as a manufacturer made Rolex®? It certainly wouldn’t carry the same prestige. Rather than killing IP for Rolex®, 3D printing is more likely to enforce the need for strong trademark protection, as well as, strong, enforceable patents. Even if Rolex® were to sell digital files for printing its watches, such files are likely to require a specific conformity to Rolex® quality. After all, Rolex® won’t put its name on just anything. Indeed, Rolex’s scrutiny of the use of its digital files will lead to increased expenses for the consumer and additional IP awareness on the part of Rolex®.
Third, 3D printing may not be practical. One can certainly imagine a world where simple products such as screws and household goods are 3D printed at home; however, most of these products are not covered by patent protection. Those that are covered by patent protection are likely to be narrowly protected, and quite possibly unenforceable. But let’s assume that 3D printing does kill IP for such products. Does this mean that IP is dead? Certainly not. Consider a gas turbine engine. Is it practical to 3D print a gas turbine engine at home? Would an aircraft manufacturer ever consider purchasing a gas turbine engine 3D printed in some dude’s basement? This is absurd. For some products, 3D printing at home is simply not practical. In 2014, United Technologies Corporation ® (“UTC”) filed over 200 patent applications. Like the products covered by these patents, many inventions simply are not made for the general consumer. It doesn’t make sense for the general consumer to even consider 3D printing most patented products. A need will always remain for these types of products. With large-scale companies like UTC being responsible for the production of these products, patents will always be a necessity.
The future of 3D printing strengthens the need for copyright and trademark protection, while, at a minimum, maintaining the need for patent protection. As 3D printing continues to shape manufacturing, the need to protect trade secrets will likewise grow. 3D printing may change the way we approach IP in the future, but it certainly won’t kill it.
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This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. The reader must consult with legal counsel to determine how laws or decisions discussed herein apply to the reader's specific circumstances.