3D Printing and Intellectual Property
By Michael Weinberg
3D Printing has all the makings of a great disruptive technology. It pushes innovation to the edge of networks. It makes creating new things easier. And it builds on disruptive technologies that came before it to allow people to collaborate to solve new problems. (For details on how 3D Printing actually works, click here.)
This technology—which is just beginning to break out of expensive design and engineering shops and into the homes of hobbyists—has the potential to change the way we think about "things." It can open the door for mass customization, democratization of design, and rapid innovation.
Of course, it also raises some interesting legal issues. As we have seen from the rise of the internet, the ability to easily create and share goes hand-in-hand with the ability to copy and distribute.
However, it would be short-sighted to simply assume that widespread access to 3D Printing will herald a replay of the digital copyright debates of the past fifteen years. At its core, that is because the world of 3D Printing is much broader than the music, movies, articles, and photos that we usually associate with the digital world.
Copyright is historically used to protect creatively conceived works that serve no functional purpose. That means that while many objects that come out of a 3D Printer—the sculptures and decorative baubles—will be protected by copyright, many more will not. As a result, copying those useful objects will not infringe on anyone's copyright.
That does not mean that there is no way to protect these useful objects. Patent gives protection to many of the useful articles that are beyond the scope of copyright. However, patent is different from copyright in a few important ways. The first is that patent is not automatic. While copyright protects creative expression the moment that it is fixed, someone with a patentable idea needs to make an affirmative decision to apply for a patent. That takes both time and money, and requires a showing of novelty and usefulness. Second, even if a patent is granted it only lasts for 20 years. 20 years is a long time, but pales in comparison to copyright's lifetime-of-the-author-plus-70-years' worth of protection.
Trademark and Design Patent
Trademark and design patent are also both important rights, but they do not necessarily change the calculus here. Like copyright, neither can protect the useful objects that make up the majority of everyday items.
What does all this mean? For a start, many things in the physical world do not have a right sholder that can stop reproduction or improvement of an object. This is not a new issue-people have been reproducing physical objects without needing permission since humans first started making things-but it can be a jarring realization when stepping away from the computer screen.
If 3D Printing does gain wide adoption, the real secret will be to consider intellectual property concerns with an open mind and to ask a few simple questions. Is this really a new problem? Can the existing intellectual property regime cope with this problem? If not, what is the specific shortcoming? What are the wider effects of addressing that shortcoming? These questions should help us focus on what is truly new about 3D Printing, and what is just the status quo wrapped up in a fancy new technology.
Michael Weinberg is Senior Staff Attorney and Innovation Evangelist at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit public interest advocacy group that defends consumers' rights on technology policy issues in Washington, DC.
T. Rowe Price and Michael Weinberg are not affiliated.