A coming revolution in 3D printing, with average consumers able to copy and create new three-dimensional objects at home, may lead to attempts by patent holders to expand their legal protections, a new paper says.
Patent holders may see 3D printers as threats, and they may try to sue makers of the printers or the distributors of CAD (computer-aided design) blueprints, said the paper, from digital rights group Public Knowledge.
"The purpose of this report is to alert the public and policymakers to the issues raised by a technology that is still in its infancy, much as personal computers were in the early 1970s," the paper said. "Existing industries could demand radical reformation of intellectual property law, or the creation of entirely new types of intellectual property, when confronted with widespread 3D printing."
Inexpensive 3D printers will allow the technology to spread to home users, said the paper, entitled, "It Will Be Awesome if They Don't Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology." Home use of 3D printing, which allows users to create objects with internal moving parts, is in its infancy, but the possibilities are hard to even imagine, the paper said.
"The next great technological disruption is brewing just out of sight," wrote Michael Weinberg, a Public Knowledge attorney and author of the paper. "In small workshops, and faceless office parks, and garages, and basements, revolutionaries are tinkering with machines that can turn digital bits into physical atoms. The machines can download plans for a wrench from the Internet and print out a real, working wrench. Users design their own jewelry, gears, brackets, and toys with a computer program, and use their machines to create real jewelry, gears, brackets, and toys."
Three-dimensional printing technologies, using resins and other materials to build new objects, have been around for decades, but until recently the printers available have been expensive, costing US$20,000 or more. But cheaper 3D printers are beginning to appear, including RepRap, an open-source project that includes instructions on how to build a 3D printer for about $520.
RepRap, developed by Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath in the U.K., uses plastics and other inexpensive materials to build objects. The RepRap Mendel can also build about half of the pieces needed to make a new RepRap, making it a self-replicating machine.
But patent holders may try to slow the transition to home-based 3D printing, the Public Knowledge report said. U.S. patent law treats any copy of a patented invention as infringement, the paper noted.
In some cases, patent holders may take their cues from copyright holders in attempting to stop consumers from printing copies of their products, the paper said. In many cases, it will be difficult for patent holders to track down copies of their products, the paper suggested. Patent holders could look at the doctrine of contributory infringement, used by copyright holders to sue file-sharing sites, the paper said.
"This would allow patent owners to go after those who enable individuals to replicate patented items in their homes," the paper said. "They could sue manufacturers of 3D printers on the grounds that 3D printers are required to make copies. They may sue sites that host design files as havens of piracy. Instead of having to sue hundreds, or even thousands, of individuals with limited resources, patent holders could sue a handful of companies with the resources to pay judgments against them."
Policy makers in the U.S. and elsewhere need to be aware of the possibilities of 3D printing when accessing patent-holder requests for additional protections, said RepRap's Bowyer and Tiffany Rad, a technology lawyer and founder of the ReverseSpace reverse-engineering lab in Herndon, Virginia.
While there are no real legal challenges to 3D printing now, some may come as the technology becomes more popular, Rad said. The proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), with 37 nations negotiating new intellectual property protections, could make it more legally difficult to reverse-engineer products in many countries, she said.
ACTA would be similar to the circumvention prohibitions in the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Rad said at a Public Knowledge press conference. "Reverse engineering is complicated to do, especially if you have to break or go around any anticircumvention measures," she said. "It's possible, if ACTA actually becomes a treaty, that the reverse engineering complications we have in the U.S. will become worldwide."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.