The world’s patent systems have quite a large problem brewing thanks to 3-D printing. Think along the lines of downloading digital music and copyright infringement. 3-D printing involves the downloading of files similar to how digital music is obtained. As we all remember, there was a large problem concerning the amount of “illegal” downloads by individuals all over the world when it came to digital music. This is the route that 3-D printing is expected to mirror. If it does occur, the patent system may not be ready to handle this potential catastrophe.
The following YouTube video clip does a good job of capturing the issue:
So, 3-D printing allows an individual (with access to a 3-D printer) to create a physical object from a set of computer instructions. These instructions are widely available online and may be downloaded to a computerized device, such as the 3-D printer itself. From the instructions, the 3-D printer may read the set of instructions and print, layer by layer, the item described by the instructions. The materials utilized by the printer may vary, but 3-D printing is typically done using plastics. Other materials that have been utilized include batters, icings, metals, and even living tissues. While 3-D printers allow individuals to print whatever item they would like, a number of those items may be covered by intellectual property rights.
Patents grant an individual an exclusive right to restrict others from making, using, selling, and importing an invention that is described by the claims in a patent. This may allow an individual a period of time during which they may produce and sell a product without direct competition by competitors. Rights to make, use, sell, and import a product may also be granted from the original patent owner to a licensee.
Patents are already hard enough to enforce, but the use of 3-D printers makes enforcement that much more difficult. Potential infringers of this kind wouldn’t be individuals who own an entire company and multiple warehouses for production and distribution; infringers would be college kids with a 3-D printer in their dorm room. Not only would the infringers be harder to track down, but money to be collected because of the infringement would more than likely be minimal. It will be interesting to see the lawsuits that pop up due to this problem as well as the precedent that the courts set to potentially fix the problem.