The use of specialized printers to create 3D objects from computer aided design (CAD) and other software goes back a number of decades. However, with prices falling precipitously on printers — some commercial models are now even available on Amazon.com for around a thousand dollars — and with a rapidly expanding diverse following, they tend to be in the news often. For example, NASA has suggested printing food in space, more than one hobbyist have created nearly fully printable guns, and new technology that allows 3D objects to be scanned and then printed is on the verge of release.
As might be expected, there have been some clashes between intellectual property law and the open-hardware and open-source 3D printing community.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in conjunction with other public interest groups, has been working toward preventing the allowance of early broad 3D printing patents that they claim could potentially monopolize the technology and inhibit freedom to operate. In particular, the EFF has been collecting and providing prior art to the United States Patent Office under a new provision in the recently passed American Invents Act that allows for a patent preissuance submission procedure wherein third parties can provide relevant information to the patent office.
The EFF and the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society are dutifully digging up problematic prior art in the hopes of showing that these foundational patent applications, some owned by non-practicing entities — i.e., companies that do not practice the patent but limit the use of the technologies by demanding payments from all potential infringers of their patents and/or litigating to prevent others from using their patented technology — can be found to be obvious in light of the technology at the time, and as such, not patentable.
The ability to print 3D objects on demand also creates a potentially new mass market method for easy and rampant pirating of trademarked, copyrighted or patented objects. Take-down notices have already been issued to a number of sites that hosted instructions for printing particular 3D objects that might be protected under copyright – for example, a set of instructions to build an item seen on a television program. Copyright may soon be used to civilly and criminally prosecute individuals who build 3D representations of perhaps their favorite star wars figures or other copyrighted items.
These printers also create the potential of increased patent infringement, particularly where it becomes relatively easy to generate and then sell infringing products, particularly low-tech devices and parts. Users of 3D printers, many of whom openly provide the technical specifications for their inventive creations online, may find themselves subjected to threatening letters for direct and induced infringement. And, unlike copyright where independent invention is a defense against infringement, you cannot copy a patented innovation, even if you independently created it.