Does 3D Printing Pose a Challenge to the Patent System?

Whenever Captain Picard ordered up some of his favorite brew, “Earl Grey tea, hot”, from the Enterprise’s replicator, it materialized right there within seconds. What seemed like pure science fiction back when Star Trek: The Next Generation was first on the air (1987 – 1994), we know today to be a very real, innovative and thriving technology called 3D printing. So it seems that Jean-Luc literally and figuratively excelled at reading the tea leaves.

These five Subway Fold posts have recently covered just a small sampling of the multitude of applications this technology has found in both the arts and sciences. (See also #3dprinting for the very latest trends and developments.)

Let us then, well, “Engage!” a related legal issue about 3D printing: Does it violate US federal copyright law in certain circumstances? A fascinating analysis of this appeared in an article on posted January 6, 2016 on ScientificAmerican.com entitled How 3-D Printing Threatens Our Patent System by Timothy Holbrook. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some of my own non-3D questions.

Easily Downloadable and Sharable Objects

Today, anyone using a range of relatively inexpensive consumer 3D printers and a Web connection can essentially “download a physical object”. All they need to do is access a computer-aided design (CAD) file online and run it on their computer connected to their 3D printer. The CAD file provides the highly detailed and technical instructions needed for the 3D printer to fabricate the item. As seen in the photo above, this technology has the versatility to produce some very complex and intricate designs, dimensions and textures.

Since the CAD files are digital, just like music and movie files, they can be freely shared online. This makes it likely that just as music and entertainment companies were threatened by file-sharing networks, so too is it possible that 3D printing will result in directly challenging the patent system. However, this current legal framework “is even more ill-equipped” to manage this threat. Consequently, 3D printing technology may well conflict with “a key component of our innovation system”.*

The US federal government (through the US Patent and Trademark office – USPTO), issues patents for inventions they determine are “nontrivial advances in state of the art”. These documents award their holders the exclusive right to commercialize, manufacture, use, sell or import the invention, while preventing other from doing so.

Infringements, Infringers and Economic Values

Nonetheless, if 3D printing enables parties other than the patent holder to “evade the patent”, its value and incentives are diminished. Once someone else employs a 3D printer to produce an object covered by a particular patent, they have infringed on the holder’s legal rights to their invention.

In order for the patent holder to bring a case against a possible infringer, they would need to have knowledge that someone else is actually doing this. Today this would be quite difficult because 3D printers are so readily available to consumers and businesses. Alternatively, the patent laws allow the patent holder to pursue an action against anyone facilitating the means to commit the infringement. This means that manufacturers, vendors and other suppliers of CAD and 3D technologies could be potential defendants.

US copyright laws likewise prohibit the “inducement of infringement”. For example, while Grokster did not actually produce the music on its file-sharing network, it did facilitate the easy exchange of pirated music files. The music industry sued them for this activity and their operations were eventually shut down. (See also this August 31, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “How Music Got Free” about a recent book covering the history and consequences of music file sharing.)

This approach could also possibly be applied to 3D printing but based instead upon the patent laws. However, a significant impediment of this requires “actual knowledge of the relevant patent”. While nearly everyone knows that music is copyrighted, everyone is not nearly as aware that devices are covered by patents. 3D printers alone are covered by numerous patents that infringers are highly unlikely to know about much less abide. Moreover, how could a potentially aggrieved patent holder know about all of the infringers and infringements, especially since files can be so easily distributed online?

The author of this piece, Timothy Holbrook, a law professor at Emory University School of Law, and Professor Lucas Osborn from Campbell University School of Law, believe that the courts should focus on the CAD files to stem this problem. They frame the issue such that if the infringing object can so easily be produced with 3D printing then “should the CAD files themselves be viewed as digital patent infringement, similar to copyright law?” Furthermore, the CAD files have their own value and, when they are sold and used to 3D print an item, then such seller is benefiting from the “economic value of the invention”. The professors also believe there is no infringement if a party merely possesses a CAD file and is not selling it.

Neither Congress nor the courts have indicated whether and how they might deal with these issues.

My Questions

  • Would blockchain technology’s online ledger system provide patent holders with adequate protection against infringement? Because of the economic value of CAD files, perhaps under such an arrangement could they be written to the blockchain and then have Bitcoin transferred to the patent holder every time the file is downloaded. (See the August 21, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry which covered an innovative approach now being explored for copyrights and royalties in the music industry)
  • Would the digital watermarking of CAD files be a sufficient deterrent to protect against file-sharing and potentially infringing 3D printing?
  • What new opportunities might exist for entrepreneurs, developers and consultants to help inventors protect and monitor their patents with regard to 3D printing?
  • Might some inventors be willing to share the CAD files of their inventions on an open source basis online as an alternative that may improve their work while possibly avoiding any costly litigation?

* If this ends up in litigation, the lawyers will add an entirely new meaning to their object-ions.

Editor’s Note – this article reprinted with the permission of the author – first published on his blog – The Subway Fold.

Posted in: Copyright, Intellectual Property
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