3D printing may bring legal challenges, group says

The technology is fast becoming available to home users, but may raise patent concerns, Public Knowledge says

By , IDG News Service |  Legal

A coming revolution in 3D printing, with average consumers able to copy and create new three-dimensional objects at home, may lead to attempts by patent holders to expand their legal protections, a new paper says.

Patent holders may see 3D printers as threats, and they may try to sue makers of the printers or the distributors of CAD (computer-aided design) blueprints, said the paper, from digital rights group Public Knowledge.

"The purpose of this report is to alert the public and policymakers to the issues raised by a technology that is still in its infancy, much as personal computers were in the early 1970s," the paper said. "Existing industries could demand radical reformation of intellectual property law, or the creation of entirely new types of intellectual property, when confronted with widespread 3D printing."

Inexpensive 3D printers will allow the technology to spread to home users, said the paper, entitled, "It Will Be Awesome if They Don't Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology." Home use of 3D printing, which allows users to create objects with internal moving parts, is in its infancy, but the possibilities are hard to even imagine, the paper said.

"The next great technological disruption is brewing just out of sight," wrote Michael Weinberg, a Public Knowledge attorney and author of the paper. "In small workshops, and faceless office parks, and garages, and basements, revolutionaries are tinkering with machines that can turn digital bits into physical atoms. The machines can download plans for a wrench from the Internet and print out a real, working wrench. Users design their own jewelry, gears, brackets, and toys with a computer program, and use their machines to create real jewelry, gears, brackets, and toys."

Three-dimensional printing technologies, using resins and other materials to build new objects, have been around for decades, but until recently the printers available have been expensive, costing US$20,000 or more. But cheaper 3D printers are beginning to appear, including RepRap, an open-source project that includes instructions on how to build a 3D printer for about $520.

RepRap, developed by Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath in the U.K., uses plastics and other inexpensive materials to build objects. The RepRap Mendel can also build about half of the pieces needed to make a new RepRap, making it a self-replicating machine.

But patent holders may try to slow the transition to home-based 3D printing, the Public Knowledge report said. U.S. patent law treats any copy of a patented invention as infringement, the paper noted.

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