The simplest way to talk about additive manufacturing is to call it 3D printing. It makes it feel less complicated and more approachable. “3D printing” just sounds accessible: so accessible that your local public library probably has its own 3D printer, and patrons can go right up to that 3D printer to print letters and statues.
But the rise of additive manufacturing’s accessibility also raises important questions about intellectual property. From machine to product and process, metal additive manufacturing is trickier than one might think.
The “Ownership” of 3D-Printed Materials
A good way to think about intellectual property rights and 3D printing is to recall the sharing of books, music, movies, and software over the internet in the 1990s and 2000s. It became trivial to share digital copies (and even home-printed physical copies) of copyrighted works, and it was nearly impossible to track.
In an article called “From IP Goals to 3D Holes: Does Intellectual Property Law Provide a Map or Gap in the Era of 3D Printing?”, written by Autumn Smith in the Journal of Intellectual Property Law, Smith notes that 3D printing separates the product from the information used to create the product, which reduces costs and allows for production from virtually anywhere. 3D printing, as a question of intellectual property, travels at the speed of information around the world, which quickly makes it a slippery legal concept.
Products that are 3D printed are protected under utility and design patents, but, as Smith identifies, “there is no protection for the underlying function of a digital model of a 3D blueprint in patent law.” Patents are only infringed upon when people use an item, and not when something like a CAD file is simply downloaded. This is a tricky gray area for many makers, designers, manufacturers, and users. Files, on their own, are not legal or illegal: it’s the use of those files that matters, from a legal standpoint.
Metal additive manufacturing has paved the way for significant innovation, which is ultimately beneficial to the industry, the innovator, and the consumer, but it is certainly a complicated legal space.
Technicalities and Exploitations in a Virtual Space
While those benefiting from services like metal additive manufacturing typically play nice, intellectual property infringement is real, and it does happen. There are always people who take advantage of the system, attempting to profit from the creative work of others. In these instances, the innovator community and the platforms and workspaces that host designs often rally around the designer, and, as a community, help regulate intellectual property.
When a person uses a 3D printer to make something that is patented, they infringe on that patent, but it is difficult to prove. Usually, it happens when someone makes a CAD file of a protected object without permission and uploads the file online for others to download and use illegally.
The original owner would need to prove that another person is liable for direct or indirect infringement. But in cases of 3D printing, the end user (who has only downloaded a file and made an object) is the manufacturer. The object that holds the patent is never sold, so no laws have been broken. The person who owns the printer could potentially be held liable, but good luck tracking down and enforcing that. Things get sticky fast.
The Need for a Strong Community
So, if there’s one certainty, it is that there are a lot of unclear laws regarding 3D printing and intellectual property. Often, issues that arise are accidental, but sometimes they are not. In either instance, laws that protect designers are necessary, especially given that the technology isn’t going anywhere and will continue to expand as it becomes more affordable for everyone.
How do we remedy this? The simple answer is that there is no answer, at least not right now. But the most promising way forward almost certainly lies in a strong sense of community: with people collaborating, sharing, and working together in meaningful and exciting ways. Programs like Fusion 360 are based around that sense of community: our hope is to democratize knowledge and expertise in the industry by giving individuals the tools they need to make their dream projects into reality, expanding the communities that work together to protect each other and expand what is possible.