How Copying Could Get Home-Use 3D Printing in Trouble

Posted on April 7, 2011

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Posted by Leslie Langnau on Monday, April 4, 2011 · View Comments

I’ve learned not to say that some new idea or technical innovation won’t happen. Take the “home-use 3D printer market,” for example. At some point, it will become an item almost as ubiquitous as the home PC printer (who knows, someone might take the PC printer and the 3D printer and merge them into a hybrid product.) The technical challenges, including size, materials, quality, and cost will be solved one day.

Using 3D printers to “print” repair and replacement parts are just the beginning of the applications possible for the nascent home-use 3D printer market. (One application involves printing chocolate frosting on bakery goods. Not only will homemakers want this, but bakeries may automate the decoration of their goods.)

Retailers do not yet realize how disruptive the home-use 3D printer market will be. Neither do distributors. Neither do many industrial manufacturers or designers because they still view 3D printers and other additive/subtractive equipment as machines, not potential desk-top products.

3D printers have a remarkable ability to copy just about anything that has a CAD file, or a CAD file that you “create” through 3D scanners. But, there are caveats, particularly for the emerging home use market. Copying may be “the sincerest form of flattery,” but it could stop this emerging industry in its tracks. That is the premise behind an interesting article written by Michael Weinberg, staff attorney, Public Knowledge Organization, It will be awesome if they don’t screw it up.

The issue will be money, and whose revenue streams will be threatened. The home 3D printing equipment market has the potential to take money out of manufacturers’ pockets, and you know what they will do about that. That’s right, sue, with any legal means available. Weinberg tells how “entrenched interests” will use copyright, patent protection, and trademark laws to, at the very least, slow down this emerging market. At the worst, these interests will try to pass legislation that prevents users from using this equipment in “new and innovative ways,” which is what happened to PCs and networked PCs when Congress passed the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). In brief, interested parties gathered under the supposed goal of “combating piracy and theft,” and passed the restrictive DMCA.

His contention is that before these entrenched interests get organized, those in favor of 3D printing should devise a strategy to counter the fight likely to come.

Now, you might think this only involves the small, hobby style 3D printers. But copyright holders have a tool, called the doctrine of contributory infringement, that they could use to go after manufacturers of 3D printers, “on the grounds that 3D printers are required to make copies,” noted Weinberg.

It’s not just Bits from Bytes, RepRap, MakerBot, or HP who face such a prospect, anyone who makes a do-it-yourself type 3D printer, (and all the major vendors of industrial grade additive manufacturing systems are looking into this), could also be involved.

So, brush up on your copyright knowledge. Because if Weinberg is right in his assessment of the disruptive nature of these 3D printers, (and he is) anyone who is involved is this industry will need to help educate our legislature to the free-market side of the story. I will have more comments on copyright issues in future blogs.

Leslie Langnau

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