The Next Battlefield: 3D Printing

A couple of months ago, the advocacy organization Public Knowledge started posting pieces on its website about 3D printing technology and how it could become the next venue for overreach by intellectual property owners.  I initially dismissed this as scare-mongering by an organization that, like all others of its type, is constantly on the lookout for causes around which to rally fundraising efforts.

But then PK issued a white paper on 3D printing and its implications for IP law which was well-researched, thought-provoking, and surprisingly balanced — more reminiscent of the output of a Center for Democracy and Technology or a Future of Music Coalition than of the polemics of an Electronic Frontier Foundation or of a… Public Knowledge.

And last month Ars Technica dished up an equally stimulating article on the same subject; I don’t know whether one inspired the other or vice versa.  Anyway, my eyes and ears started to perk up.

What really did it for me was hearing Jaron Lanier’s keynote address last Thursday at the Festival of Ideas for the New City conference here in New York.  He mentioned 3D printing as becoming huge once the technology gets down to the consumer range of price and complexity.  Being the fan of Lanier’s writings that I am, I became convinced: 3D printing is worth much attention in the world of intellectual property and technology.

So what is 3D printing?  It’s a manufacturing technique whereby a machine makes a physical object by “printing” it in many very thin layers.  It’s typically referred to as a disruptive technology, but like all such things, it grows out of existing technologies and only becomes “disruptive” once it reaches a certain threshold of price, size, scale, complexity, or more than one of these.

Plenty of steps have been taken towards the scalable and economical automation of manufacturing.  I’ve had experience with two of them.  About thirty years ago, I wrote user-interface software for a computer-controlled lathe, an example of what we now know as CAD/CAM.  With this software (which ran on a mainframe), you could draw the outline of a part you wanted to make, insert the raw stock (wood or metal) into the lathe, press a button, and have it make the part.  More recently, I worked with a leading maker of printers and copiers which had a device for printing images on garments, such as T-shirts.

I’ll leave it to other sources, such as the Public Knowledge white paper, Ars Technica article, and Wikipedia to give better background on the emergence and potential of 3D printing than I can.   But what strikes me the most about this technology from our perspective here is that it has the capacity to profoundly affect all areas of intellectual property.

If an everyday person can spend, say, US $1000 for a device that lets her make any plastic or polymer object up to a cubic foot in size for the cost of raw materials, and if that device can accept AutoCAD, Sketchup, or similar CAD/CAM files specifying what is to be made, then IP owners have a problem on their hands.  With such a device, you could make something that infringes copyrights, trademarks, patents, or all of the above at once.

These three branches of IP evolved separately; see Adrian Johns’ Piracy for a very good summary of how they were originally distinguished from one another and then went their separate ways.  Occasionally some law is made that borrows a concept from one branch of IP law and applies it to another; the most prominent recent example of this is the Supreme Court’s 2007 Grokster decision, which borrowed the concept of “inducement” from patent law and applied it to copyrights.

Applying all of the different strands of IP law to a single technology is a recipe for a mess — particularly when it comes to the legal concept of secondary liability, i.e. “helping someone infringe.”  The maker of a 3D printing device would be held to different standards regarding patent, copyright, and trademark infringement.

IP owners will naturally begin to think about technical measures they can take (or attempt to require) to guard against infringement.  With predecessor technologies to 3D printing, life was relatively simple — relatively.  For example: In the project I did with the printer maker, the company wanted to sell the garment printers to small retailers so that they could produce garments with licensed images on them, on demand.  The printers had a price tag in the low five figures (USD).

Think about applications such as sports venues (second-string player shoots a sixty-footer at the last second; everyone wants a T-shirt to commemorate the occasion but the kiosk doesn’t have any), party stores (My Little Pony on the front, Happy 5th Birthday Juliette on the back), or museums (I want a T-shirt of that Vermeer painting on the second floor, on a light blue background, in Extra Large).   My involvement with the printer maker was to help design a service that could provide licensed images to the devices over the Internet while ensuring that the local merchant wouldn’t abuse them.

But 3D printing takes such concerns to a much more complex level.  It’s easy to recognize trademarks and trademarked imagery.  We know something about how to recognize and thwart copyright infringement.  But what does “DRM for patents” even look like, and is such a concept even worth pursuing?

I certainly don’t have the answers.  But I promise you that I will follow this fascinating area with interest as it unfolds.


  1. Thanks for this provocative post, Bill!

    Since 3D printers are often used for rapidly making reproductions of objects based on laser scanning, the issue of design patents is also in question. Design patents are the closest thing to copyright that “thing makers” have to protect the “look and feel” of their widgets. Infringement of utility patents requires duplicating the functionality of a widget, whereas design patents are infringed by duplicating the widget’s registered design.

    One line of defense would be for widget developers to pay more attention to registering their designs in addition to filing their patents on functionality; this would give them legal recourse against look-alike knock-offs that may be functionally different, as well as exact replicas in design and function.

    “DRM for patents” (where the creation and infringement are both happening based on 3D printer sources) might work in a limited way, but IMHO the real battle will be 3D design infringement based on scanning. I think we have to look to image forensics and, deeper — pun intended! — the science of surfaces to find solutions.

    On this second point, imagine the following: Your favorite widget is micro-etched with the equivalent of a digital watermark during its manufacture. These markings would be impossible to detect with the naked eye, but sufficient post-processing of 3D scanning datasets would reveal an 3D widget identifier. Sufficient encoding could be used as a basis for reliable fraud detection.

    Higher-end vendors of 3D replication suites could voluntarily introduce detection algorithms the same way high-end mopier vendors have incorporated anti-counterfeiting features, the latter at the behest of the US Secret Service and governments around the world. Obviously this would not prevent cheap design replicas from being made, but it would forestall the highest-end reproductions.

  2. Monty Boyer · ·

    For a provocative take on the future of 3D printing you may enjoy Makers, a new Cory Doctorow novel. A postulated approach is to control the feed stock used by the printer. Also interesting is that this was originally published as a serialized novel by Tor –

  3. […] lot of discussion is currently circulating around the legal implications of 3D printing and the potential copyright issues it poses. We’re not lawyers, so we can’t comment on […]

  4. […] great deal of discussion is at the moment circulating close to the legal implications of 3D printing and the potential copyright troubles it poses. We’re not lawyers, so we cannot comment on the […]

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