Does IP exist in the 3D Printing world?

By Wouter Kempes
Originally published in Mikroniek: Issue 3, 2015, Vol. 55

Wouter Kempes M.Sc., Dutch Patent Attorney

“Instead of trying to stop the unstoppable, we should be an active part of the endless opportunities 3D printing has to offer, even if this requires a new way of looking at intellectual property.”

Last December NASA made quite a statement on the revolutionary potential of 3D printing. In less than a week the space agency drafted a ratchet wrench design and sent it to the International Space Station, where it was printed in less than four hours.

Considering that it costs more than €9000 per kilogram to send something into orbit, and that 3D printers are available from €69, the possibilities of 3D printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing, seem endless. And not just in space or in the far future; see the titanium case in the box on the right.

However, this kind of revolutionary innovation simultaneously sparks an essential debate on the position of intellectual property (IP) rights within this industry of literal copying. Today it still takes hours to print a simple object. But with the prices of printers dropping and technology rapidly improving, it is only a matter of time before a 3D printer will be a common sight in every household. Gartner predicted that worldwide sales of 3D printers will reach 217,000 units in 2015, up from 108,000 in 2014. By 2018 this number will have exploded up to 2.3 million.

With these numbers of ‘manufacturers’, it will become increasingly hard to identify and stop anyone from illegally copying and selling protected products. In that sense it is reminiscent of the illegal download problems of the music industry. One single download won’t do much harm, but millions of these downloaders could seriously damage an industry. The big difference being that downloading, even when done by an individual, is illegal, whilst the (3D) copying of a product for personal use is not. Even patents don’t protect this private production and use of goods.

Lost court cases in the past over video recorders and cassette recorders as devices that enable copyright infringement already indicate that there is no point in trying to stop 3D printers. And with the innovation it provides, it would also be a nonsensical thing to strive for. So what can be done to prevent unlimited copying of designs and products? If whatever you’re bringing out on the market is not patented, or otherwise protected, copying and selling of it will be almost impossible to stop. All it takes is a 3D scanner, a 3D printer and raw materials. However, even a patent is no guarantee to success. If the music industry has taught us anything, it is that rampant suing will most probably only be highly expensive and ineffective.

Instead of trying to stop the unstoppable, we should be an active part of the endless opportunities 3D printing has to offer, even if this requires a new way of looking at intellectual property. Nokia tried this adaptive approach by releasing a 3D print design which allows customers to easily design and print custom covers for smartphones. Such a licensing system could just as easily apply to specific parts of machinery that need to be repaired or replaced. The ease of 3D printing is fully exploited while the IP rights of the designer are protected. In the end, it’s this exchange between innovation and IP rights that will mark the path forward. Ultimately, the 3D designers of the future will also want their products protected. We will just have to see how the legal framework of this future will shape out.

3D printing titanium
An example from this year: the Hittech Group, a Dutch system supplier, started cooperating with Norsk Titanium to produce titanium parts. One party provides rough 3D prints of parts while the other machines them to their exact shape. Traditionally, solid blocks of titanium were used, of which up to 90% would have to be removed by machining. These kinds of substantial cost reductions are only the tip of the 3D print iceberg.

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