3D Printing and its Threat to IP

December 21, 2018

3D Printing is a technology poised to bring change to nearly every industry space. Traditional printing allows one to use an inkjet to apply ink to a page and produce images, words, and symbols. 3D Printing, on the other hand, uses a wide variety of techniques in order to create any number of 3-dimensional shapes. Most commonly, 3D Printing uses plastic materials like poly-lactic acid or poly-vinyl alcohol, due to their strength, flexibility, and ability to be effectively manipulated by the heating techniques of 3D Printing. Examples of common techniques used to perform 3D Printing include Selective Laser Sintering, which uses a laser to sinter powdered material causing material in the areas aimed at to fuse together, and fused deposition modeling (or FDM), which uses a nozzle to melt down filaments of the material and then deposits the material layer by layer.

However, these techniques are not limited to plastics. Metal 3D Printing has been used for industrial purposes and researchers have been working on effectively utilizing 3D printing to print cells into new tissues or even entire organs. The field is therefore moving closer to being able to produce almost any physical product one can imagine. These 3D printers are not just limited to large companies and industrial applications. In 2005, the RepRap Project has worked towards creating a low-cost 3D printer that can print most of its own components. RepRap claims that before their work, the cheapest commercial 3D printer would have been an unmanageable €30,000, but today one can buy a RepRap Prusa i3 printer from Walmart for as little as $145. These low costs are not unique to RepRp printers, but represent a trend of decreasing prices, especially for printers utilizing plastic filaments. This means that 3D printers will likely become increasing common in homes, especially for those who enjoy doing DIY work.

While some might prefer the lesser effort it takes to pick up a toy, for example, in a store, others may like the greater freedom afforded to them in being able to change minor details of the figure or change how it is colored.

Creating objects using a 3D printer is relatively simple. One can either create the design for one’s self using a program like Solidworks or download someone else’s modeling of the item online. While this simplicity can be helpful to creators in producing their items cheaply and more efficiently, it can also be an issue for them as end users are capable of making the item themselves rather than buying it at a store. While some might prefer the lesser effort it takes to pick up a toy, for example, in a store, others may like the greater freedom afforded to them in being able to change minor details of the figure or change how it is colored.

A copyright affords one the exclusive right “to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies” and to “prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work.” Thus, if someone offers to sell a figure of a 3D-printed copyrighted character or some other product, the holder of the copyright may petition the site for a “takedown” according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This isn’t just an issue about completed products, however, as copyright holders also need to be vigilant about the numerous Solidworks design patterns that circulate around the Internet and that allow consumers to produce their own figures. Even if the copyright holder pays the costs of regulating both the Solidworks files dealing with their characters and actual attempts to sell completed models of those characters, their mark will still likely be weakened by people creating their own version of the figure with their own Solidworks file. As mentioned earlier, Solidworks is an easy to use program and therefore, it is likely that could produce their own versions of the characters without any way for the company to monitor the creation of these items. Much of copyright law is focused on preventing unlicensed sales of copyrighted items, but in an economy where end consumers are increasingly more able to also be the creators of their own goods, the current vision of copyright law may be inadequate in actually encouraging authors and illustrators to create their own unique characters. Its hard to imagine an easy solution to this issue. Entirely halting the distribution of 3D printers would hinder the development of a useful technology that could greatily improve the lives of every day citizens. However, without such a drastic action as that, there would seem to be no real method to monitor increasing unlicensed reproduction of copyrighted characters and other works.