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. 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. 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.
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