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Patent trolls may be preparing to target 3D printing

Lucas Mearian | May 21, 2015
The official owner of intellectual property in 3D printing can be unclear.

Instead of continuing to go after consumers or the websites hosting the printable files over patent infringement, Hasbro chose to offer its toy designs as licenses that could be purchased by consumers.

"Shapeways gets a cut, the designer gets a cut and Hasbro gets a cut," Malhotra said. "Perhaps we'll see more and more companies decide it's not worth it to try to chase down everybody to stop copyright infringement. There are actually alternative, innovative ways to make money and respect intellectual property at the same time."

Who owns 3D printed objects?

Alan Rothenbuecher, a partner at the law firm of Ice Miller LLP, agreed with Malhotra, saying if a company finds it too expensive to protect IP, it should sell it for use.

"Do what Microsoft does," Rothenbuecher said. "They give you a product key. They limit the number" of times it can be used, he said. "You're not registering [to use it] for the fun of it for your warranty. You're registering because they want to find out what you're doing with their products."

Yet another problem with IP law related to 3D printing is that once an object is printed it's not cut and dried who actually owns the rights to it, Rothenbuecher said. The conceptual artist who created the original design, the CAD file designer and the consumer who printed the object can all claim to have rights to the IP.

"The other difficulty that you'll have is that when somebody steals [your IP], there's an area in law right now where you either have to use, make or sell the product," Rothenbuecher said. "But if it's a digital file the law really hasn't caught up with that. So there's people making digital copies with the ability to circumvent the law."

Rothenbuecher said if IP is too expensive to protect, 3D innovators should take the Tesla approach -- innovating instead of patenting.

"By the time you catch up, they're already two generations ahead," he said.


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