A predicted boom in 3D printing could create a tangled web of intellectual property (IP) issues as it becomes cheaper and easier to copy designs and make knockoffs, according to some IP experts.
3D printing opens a cheap new way to quickly make copies of IP. With the ability to post 3D print files online for others to download, there is potential for an Internet piracy situation akin to the one the music industry faced with Napster and other file-sharing services.
Intellectual property owners should review whether their designs for objects are fully protected, said Hamish Fraser, a partner at the law firm Bird & Bird who specialises in technology and IP issues.
"The piracy issues are fairly huge," he told Computerworld Australia. "The bigger question is - have you got rights you can protect?
"There's an issue of people who may not have realised they're not protected, and now it's a whole lot easier to copy what they're doing."
Matthew Rimmer, an intellectual property academic and associate professor at the Australian National University College of Law, said that IP owners must assess both threats and opportunities brought by 3D printing.
"Companies should always be worried about new innovation," he said. "3D printing has opportunities for IP owners, and it also presents challenges and threats.
"There are some huge opportunities in terms of reducing some of the logistics costs and things like that. If you use 3D printing to make things, there could be huge efficiencies and economic benefits that you could derive."
But there are many legal issues, too, he said.
"You have the full gamut of IP issues. It's copyright, it's patents, it's trademarks, it's designs - perhaps it's even things like trade secrets as well. 3D printing cuts across all the various domains of intellectual property.
"That will be very challenging both for businesses and IP lawyers."
The rise of 3D printing
While 3D printing remains cost prohibitive for the average consumer, the prices are rapidly dropping and the quality of output is improving, said Fraser.
Some desktop 3D printers retail for only a few hundred dollars. The M3D Micro, an inexpensive 185mm cube printer, is now available to pre-order for $349. However, more advanced professional machines may still cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Consumers who don't want to own a 3D printer will still be able to print designs by paying a small fee at stores offering 3D printing services, said Fraser. Office supplies retailer Staples has trialled such a service in some of their stores in the US.
As a result of these developments, many IP owners who have never had a problem with infringement could soon find their designs copied without permission, he said. In many cases, this action could be completely legal.
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