White paper on 3D printing and the law: the coming copyfight

Public Knowledge's Michael Weinberg has a new white paper: "It Will Be Awesome if They Don't Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology" -- the title says it all, really.
Traditional patent infringement is not necessarily well suited to a world in which individuals are replicating patented items in their own homes for their own use. Unlike with copyright infringement, the mere possession or downloading of a file is not enough to create infringement liability.[36] In order to identify an infringer, the patent owner would need to find a way to determine that the device was actually replicated in the physical world by the potential defendant. This would likely be significantly more time and resource intensive than the monitoring of file trading sites used in copyright infringement cases.

In light of this, following in the wake of large copyright holders, patent owners may turn to the doctrine of contributory infringement to defend their rights.[37] This would allow patent owners to go after those who enable individuals to replicate patented items in their homes. For example, 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.

In addition to attacking the companies that make 3D printing possible, patent owners may try to stigmatize CAD filetypes in much the same way that copyright holders stigmatize the bittorrent file transfer protocol (or even MP3 files). Successfully equating CAD files with infringement could slow the mainstream adoption of 3D printing and imply that anyone uploading CAD files to a community site is somehow infringing on rights.

It Will Be Awesome if They Don't Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology


  1. In a world that even colors and letters in the alphabet are copyrightable… it is going to be a steep fight for the home 3d manufacturing.

    p.s: With so much talking about 3d printing. I think people forget about the much better alternative table top CNC milling. http://www.taigtools.com and http://www.sherline.com/ have been around for many years.. And they are extremely affordable.

    1. I’m not sure that colors and indidicual letters are being copyrighted, rather they may be part of a trademark. Of course ISTR that there’s a case in front of the Supremes now using copyright to go after grey-market watch importers, so I could be wrong.

      But that’s a real problem. Copyright is easy to get and lasts a long time. However the rights that it gives a creator ARE more limited than a patent. Because it’s so easy to get, people have repeatedly abused it to do thing it is ill-suited for.

  2. IANAL, but it’s my understanding that I can freely make any patented device, provided it’s for my own use.

    If I’m wrong, I’m sure I’ll be corrected. :)

    1. You are incorrect. Patents have a much longer reach than copyrights. From 35 U.S.C. § 271:

      (a) Except as otherwise provided in this title, whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent.

      More directly relevant to the article, this is immediately followed by:

      (b) Whoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer.

  3. One way to counter efforts to stigmatize the concept is to brand it as “rapid prototyping”. That term carries all kinds of positive connotations of new development that are absent in terms like “3D Printer” or even worse, “3D Copier”.

  4. Something important about the current state of the 3D printing business which is lacking mention in the Public Knowledge article is that most (nearly all) of the manufacturers of the many different 3D printers currently very tightly control the materials used by their printers – selling them at prices and using techniques as or more strict than the sellers of printer ink utilize (some 3D printers OEM’s use RFID chips embedded in blocks of printer material to verify that only their materials are being used in their printers)

    While 3D printing is pretty amazing it also has some severe limitations (currently at least) around the final objects which are created – they are suitable for some purposes (depending on the machines & materials & designs) but in many cases have weaknesses and limitations (may be weaker and prone to material failures in one dimension for example, or the materials may be brittle).

    Current processes also include a lot of manual steps – though hopefully over time MakerBot and others will help simplify the processes and extend 3D printers more into the hobbiest and eventually into the home.

    [full disclosure my not yet publicly launched startup uses a variety of manufacturing techniques, including 3D printing, to make physical goods from digital assets – primarily for game companies today]

  5. One way to counter this is to stigmatize any companies that try and attack the 3D printer industry and culture.

    Make them in the eyes of the public as greedy attacker on public property. People who would rather deni the public there own free ideas for money.

    Unlike popular arts like music and movies it would be hard for companies to rally the public behind them without popular figureheads like movie stars and singers. Instead the public would see a large faceless company trying to harm the public itself, if presented right.

  6. For the vast majority of objects to be printed patents aren’t an issue. Patents last for 20 years with an option for 20 more. Anything older than that is fair game. Additionally, by changing the object slightly it’s easy to create something that would no longer be a representation of the patent. What’s more is that unless you plan to mass produce an object then there won’t be anyone to enforce it.

    1. Patents don’t really last 20 years, they last for 20 from time of application, no more. 3-5 years for approval, so they tend to only last 15-17 years. There is a way with pharmaceuticals to get an extra couple years to make up for time stuck in clinical trials, but that’s it.

  7. Stigmatization? I doubt so.

    People who care about 3d printers are also aware that the stigmatization of file types is a huge pile of animal waste. The high-end 3D printers are still business-grade and expensive. The low-end things like CupCake CNC or RepRap can be made from anything including LEGO, and anybody with one can make kits of parts for anybody else; the stepper motors and drivers (or even complete units) can then be bought from overseas – if local corporations are afraid of a lawsuit, a guy from Hong Kong will be more than happy to fill the void. If the tech can be made in a garage or a bedroom, it can not be stopped anymore. If whole assembled units can be stopped at customs, parts can still get through; and it takes only one guy skilled enough to build the rig to supply a few more with the missing parts, and they then can do the same for a couple others.

    The Content Industry lost the lawsuit about portable MP3 players and they are now everywhere. Their stigmatization attempts did not go far as well. The same will apply to 3D printers.

    That’s the beauty of a REALLY disruptive technology; you can be an entrenched incumbent with atomic-powered lawyers and you are still pretty much powerless.

    “I repaired it. It was broken. It had parts missing.” “Which parts?” “All of them.”

  8. In european patent laws, as far as I know, strictly private use of a patented invention ist not an infringement. Neither would be providing a tool like a 3D printer, that just happens to be capable of reproducing a proprietary design. Providing full specifications or a CAD file without license could under certain conditions count as infringement, but it probabaly would be easy to circumvent that.

  9. Pretty soon it seems we will be living in the world where all the limits of what is possible are not technological ones, but legal ones.

    The future has been cancelled — by lawyers.

    1. The future is still there. The limits are only technological; the legal ones apply only to corporations. We can still build anything we please; where applicable, we just have to tweak the designs and the way they are published to minimize the chance of getting caught. Legal problems are only a special class of technical problems.

      The future is ultimately shaped by technicians, not by lawyers. All we have to do is switching on our soldering irons, oscilloscopes, and brains, and make it as we please. If we keep the initiative, all they can do is reacting – slowly and poorly.

      At the end the technology wins.

        1. …or talk on SILC (more secure version of IRC), or on servers in Russia, India, or China. Or perhaps somewhere in Africa, or in any other location that won’t rat your IP address just because a lawyer from half the world away asks for it. The world is far bigger than US/EU.

          Cf. the War on (Selected) Drugs. Compare the laws in the books with how many people smoke and grow and how difficult it is to go our and buy (or even get shared) a joint. And there are no pee tests for hacking electronics.

  10. This is yet another point to show that intellectual property laws are illegitimate. They are arbitrary and inconsistent, and do not correspond to scarcity and property.
    Even ignoring the philosophical question of the nature of property, the utilitarian analysis of intellectual property law fails: IP laws do not yield a better or more innovative society overall.

    See Against Intellectual Monopoly for a deeper discussion and historical analysis.

  11. Hey, 3D printing is a cool idea. Tell me if your reprap can fabricate something like a model airplane engine or a stepper motor. Until then I will go into my workshop and use my lathe, drill press, table saw, router, and planer and dream about the day when I can add a jointer and a five axis mill.

    The fantasy that is involved in home fabricators is that they will eliminate the need for high level skill. Tell me, after you build some cool device, how do you determine that it functions with the degree of accuracy that is required?

    All the home fabricators I’ve seen are toys.

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