3-D Printers: The Next I.P. Frontier?

October 8, 2012

3D PrintingPrinters today have capabilities far beyond those of their predecessors.  For a bit more than $1,000, consumers and businesses can purchase printers that quickly and easily generate plastic objects.  Previous generations of printers could only produce two-dimensional content such as text and images.

No such constraint exists today.  These printers enable users to create three dimensional replicas of 3-D objects.  This new generation of printers has matured to the point where it is encountering resistance applied through use of intellectual property laws.

Now that printing devices can copy three dimensional objects, an interesting interplay of copyright, patent, and trademark law enforcement is emerging.  The resolution of that intellectual property law dance has profound implications for advanced digital printing technology development.  Perhaps more important, it also carries significant implications for the legal rights of individual consumers.

Recently, Games Workshop, a developer of the game, “Warhammer,” asserted copyright claims associated with the posting of digital files for three dimensional copies of some of the “Warhammer” game pieces.  An individual user of “Warhammer” reportedly used a three dimensional printer made by the company, MakerBot, to create copies of modified versions of the “Warhammer” game pieces.

After copying the modified game pieces, the individual allegedly posted the digital files associated with the pieces at the online sharing site, “Thingiverse.”  The Thingiverse site specializes in enabling users to share information regarding the process of printing specific three dimensional objects.

Games Workshop reportedly contacted Thingiverse to request that the “Warhammer” game piece files and information be removed from the Thingiverse site.  The basis for the takedown request was copyright law.  Games Workshop asserted that posting of the files and information that facilitated 3-D copying of the modified “Warhammer” game pieces violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The resolution of this specific dispute is currently uncertain.  We can, however, assume that this controversy is merely one of the first of many yet to come.  It is likely that copyright, patent, and trademark laws will be applied in a range of combinations as 3-D printing becomes increasingly mainstream.

Past experience in the music and motion picture industries strongly suggests that copyright and other forms of intellectual property rights will be the tools of choice in efforts to resist widespread acceptance of 3-D printing technology.  Enterprises that feel commercially threatened by three dimensional printing capability are virtually certain to make aggressive use of intellectual property law claims to impede the expansion of the new technology.

Three dimensional printers provide yet another example of technical innovations that offer the potential to facilitate economic growth and empower individual users.  One can only hope that our public policies and laws begin to learn from errors made in handling prior disruptive technologies, thus enabling us to realize more effectively and more rapidly the economic and social benefits offered by those technologies.