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3D Printing and its Effect on Intellectual Property

3D printing has become popular. The digital files describing mechanical products can now be easily shared, such that ordinary individuals can now create mechanical products. This significantly changes the economics of mechanical products.

I grew up in the 1970s, when cassette tapes first became popular. I recall its effect on the music industry as individuals began taping radio shows and copying records. The industry had no way to control the distribution of the music it owned. Copyright infringers were no longer other manufacturers, but individuals; often teenagers. These are not the entities that a large corporation wants to take to court. Nor does the level of their infringement justify a large court case.

The music industry was in a bind. It partially solved its problem by imposing a surcharge on the sale of the blank cassettes, compensating the music industry for their lost earnings. They also went after individuals who egregiously copied.

The situation worsened as compact disks were invented, followed by peer-to-peer sharing networks. It only started to improve with Apple’s iStore, which changed the model by which music was sold (selling them as inexpensive and easily available individual tracks). YouTube then changed the model yet again: making music free and driving musicians to push for the most views and to perform more live concerts.

I envision a similar evolution for manufacturers with the growth of 3D printing. As the devices become more capable, more mechanical products will be “cloned” by average users. Manufacturers will face a similar problem to the music industry; it makes no economic sense to take an individual infringer to court, unless that infringer makes a large number of copies.

How should the manufacturing world respond? How should the Intellectual Property world respond? The freedom to copy provided by new audio media created new kinds of IP, such as author’s rights and performer’s rights. There will now be a need for a new kind of IP to handle the issues created by 3D printing. Maybe maskworks can serve as a model . Maskworks provide protection to the masks used to make semiconductor chips, though the masks are not part of the chips themselves. The masks are covered by copyright but maskworks provide stronger protection.

Patent applications of products which can be manufactured by 3D printing should discuss the possible manufacture by 3D printing. While current claims, which define the elements of the invention and their connections to each other, cover the elements of the 3D printed product, patent applications should also have at least one claim to cover the possible definition of the product by the 3D printing file.

We will need to see how things develop before finalizing any laws, but now is the time to discuss the effects 3D printing will have on our world.

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