Industries that would almost certainly be put out of business by 3DPrinting, were it to become a household norm, are not going to go down without a fight, say legal experts. And what will be their weapon of choice?
Intellectual property laws…
The presumed fear is that people will eventually be able to download CAD files, or create their own with advanced 3DScanners, of anything in the world: shoes, televisions, guitars, iPhones, and on, and on. Yes, 3DPrinter users would likely have to create these object piece-by-piece (as is currently the case). But in the end, they would still have a complete product. So just as the movie and music industries have gone after bit-torrent files and the sites that share them in their war against online piracy, so too will manufacturers attack CAD files and CAD file sharing, experts watching the space believe.
As incumbent companies begin to see small-scale 3DPrinting as a threat, they will inevitably attempt to restrict it by expanding intellectual property protections
wrote Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer for Public Knowledge, in a recently published white paper on 3DPrinting. “In doing so they will point to easily understood injuries to existing business models such as lost sales, lower profits, and reduced employment.”
Prepare for battle?
This is a cycle we’ve seen before. Weinberg notes that “incumbent companies” put up similar fights against the printing press, photo copiers, VCRs, and even the personal computer. In the case of the PC, writes Weinberg:
“these interests pushed through laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that made it harder to usecomputers in new and innovative ways.”
The challenge for the fledgling 3DPrinting industry is to understand “how intellectual property law relates to 3DPrinting, and how changes might impact 3DPrinting’s future,” so that it will be ready to fight “before incumbents try to cripple 3DPrinting with restrictive intellectual property laws.”
While patent and trademark law may be used by established industries to trample 3DPrinting, both have a number of limitations that will make them difficult to use against home 3DPrinting, explains Weinberg. Instead, threatened industries will likely seek to strengthen copyright laws to make the recreation of objects — or even the creation of objects that perform the same function as a copyrighted item — illegal.
“Useful objects could be protected for decades after creation. Mechanical and functional innovation could be frozen by fears of massive copyright infringement lawsuits,” warns Weingberg. “Furthermore, articles that the public is free to recreate and improve upon today would become subject to inaccessible and restrictive licensing agreements.”
At the very least, says Weinberg, “rightsholders could insist that, in order to avoid liability, 3DPrinter manufacturers incorporate restrictive DRM that would prevent their printers from reproducing CAD designs with ‘do not copy’ watermarks.”
As mentioned, the goal of Weinberg’s paper is to prepare the 3DPrinting industry and its customers for a coming legal battle over this emerging technology. For the moment, however, 3DPrinting remains a niche.
If Weinberg is right, so-called incumbent companies will flex whatever muscles they can to stop that day from ever arriving…