Fifteen years ago, a free service burst onto the scenes and turned the music industry upside down. If you were over the age of 10 years-old at the time, you probably remember logging onto your computer, and downloading all of your favorite songs for free via a service called Napster. Back in 1999, Napster became a major disruption for music producers and artists around the globe. It allowed for anyone with an internet connection to share MP3 files with complete strangers, all free of charge. Millions upon millions of dollars were lost in the process, by those that produced these songs.
Now 15 years later, legislation, lawsuits, and threats of legal recourse have eliminated Napster’s original business model, and all in all, it seems to be working quite well in deterring the downloading of illegal music.
Intellectual property is a topic that comes up quite often when talking about 3D printing, and some experts see the technology as a potential rebirth of the Napster movement. At the same time, it has the potential to disrupt traditional manufacturing to an extent that could make the music industry’s IP issues look like a walk in the park.
Intellectual property laws protect both individuals and businesses in their pursuit to take their ideas, designs, and tangible products and protect them from others. One of the concerns that come up within the 3D printing space, is that of how to protect the intellectual property of individuals and companies when people can simply download a 3-dimensional file of an object, and then 3D print it out in the privacy of their own homes.
Gartner, a technology research firm, recently made the bold prediction of saying that by the year 2018, there will be an annual loss in intellectual property, valued at $100 billion per year, from 3D printing alone.
With the increasing use and availability of both 3D printers and 3D scanners, the ability to replicate objects is beginning to reach new heights. Whether it is legislation, a few major lawsuits, or some sort of technological based solution, at some point, someone will need to figure out a way to prevent the theft of intellectual property via 3D printing.
This coming September 17th, experts, law makers, and 3D printing enthusiasts will be meeting in Washington, DC to discuss, and provide opinions on, how 3D printing will result in many different intellectual property issues. The event is called 3D Printing Politics. It is being held by MediaBistro, and on hand will be several notable individuals.
Attending and participating in the event, will be Richard Rainey, Executive Counsel of IP Litigation at General Electric; Tim Ryan, Chair of the Congressional Makers Caucus; Bill Foster, Congressman of the 11th Congressional District of Illinois; John Hornick, a Partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garret & Dunner, L.L.P.; as well as many other well respected law makers, industry insiders, and intellectual property experts.
3DPrint.com had the opportunity to speak with John Hornick, who is an IP counselor and litigator at Finnegan’s Washington, DC headquarters. He will be taking part in a roundtable discussion at the conference, titled “Intellectual Property Challenges & The Changes to Culture Driven by Bottom-up, Peer-to-peer, Democratized Manufacturing”.
“This happened with the music industry, when people started downloading music for free from peer-to-peer sites,” Hornick explained to us. “The music industry reacted by filing a lot of lawsuits, suing individuals for copyright infringement, and then wanting Congress to enact new laws. I think the same thing will happen when companies start being affected by 3D printing.”
This has not happened as of yet though, and we may still be several years away from it occurring. Hornick wonders if it will even be possible to have legislation that works in preventing IP theft within the 3D printing space. He told us that he believes legislation probably isn’t the answer. He does believe that legislators will need to really think hard about laws that they put in place, as they risk potentially stifling the many benefits that 3D printing provides us.
The issue of 3D scanning is one that may cause some extremely interesting legal battles in the future. 3D scanners allow people to take a 3-dimensional image of an object, and then load it into imaging software on their computers. Once on the computer, these objects can be modified, enhanced, sliced, and then 3D printed. What happens when someone decides to scan an object that is currently being mass manufactured and sold by a company that holds exclusive intellectual property rights for it? Conceivably, the person who steals the design from this company, could then modify it to make it appear to be a slightly different, and then either post it up on a website like Thingiverse and allow anyone to download and 3D print it for free, or they could decide to sell it themselves. Can anything really be done about this?
“I don’t think there is any way to protect against infringing 3D blueprints that are created from scanning the protected product,” said Hornick. “Some people will say, ‘that is only going to be for the a surface appearance of things. You can scan what it looks like, but you can’t scan the interior,’ but that’s not true.”
He then explained an example cited by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman in their book, ‘Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing’. Researchers took CT scans of ancient medallions found in the middle east, that featured ancient cuneiform writing on the outside. Archaeologists were not allowed to take these medallions out of the country to study them, but were able to 3D print them, using the CT scan data. Upon completion of these 3D printed medallions, the researchers broke them open, and to their amazement found ancient writing on the inside as well.
So for those individuals who don’t think that 3D scanning technology is capable of recreating objects in a precise manner, they are incorrect. This technology is only going to get better and better, and prices for 3D scanners capable of extremely detailed imaging will only come down with time.
Another problem that companies will face is the vast array of open source 3D files that are currently available and that will continue to become available in the future. For example, Tonka creates toy trucks that currently sell quite well. What happens when a greater population of people own 3D printers and begin accessing, downloading and creating 3D printable files on the internet? People will begin creating toy trucks, very similar to what Tonka currently offers, and then making them available for free download. This will have a significant impact on Tonka’s business model. Why would someone purchase a Tonka truck for $50 when they can download and 3D print one at home for almost no cost at all? Hornick believes that these businesses will be forced to modify their business plans in order to retain their revenues.
“Eventually they might make those files available for 3D printing, and then it will be just like the music industry,” explained Hornick. “If the price of the file is low enough and it is easy enough to print, people might pay for it instead of stealing it or just printing some generic dump truck that doesn’t have any (IP) protection on it at all. Everyone is going to be struggling to find their place in this market, and trying to find a way to make money. There are going to be all kinds of ways of doing it, that maybe don’t exist today.”
Hornick noted that some people believe that the way that companies like Tonka will be successful, is that they will have to provide value added, somehow, to entice customers to purchase 3D printable designs from them, rather than downloading it for free elsewhere. Some of methods could include, providing superior customer service, or the ability to completely customize their designs. There will be all sorts of business models that companies will end up trying.
Another important precaution that these companies will need to take, is the encryption of their designs. How can they prevent people from downloading a design, and then redistributing it to others? One method could be a highly encrypted website interface, where the designs are sliced, the g-code is generated, and the code is then sent directly to a 3D printer, so that it makes it extremely difficult to steal.
Without a doubt, there are issues that will arise in the near future, with the increasing use of 3D printing and scanning technology. Hornick feels that most companies are not generally pro-active, in that rather than developing business models that protect revenue streams threatened by 3D printing, they will wait until they see a decrease in revenues, then pursue legal action or try to get legislation put into place. As of now, there are not any major intellectual property losses due to 3D printing, but in the coming years, that will certainly be changing.
The 3D Printing Politics conference on September 17 will provide ample opportunities for individuals and businesses to discuss the future impact that 3D printing will have on intellectual property losses. If you are interested in attending the conference, you can register now. For those who register prior to September 3, there is a $500 discount over the on site registration fee.
What are your opinions on the future impact that 3D printing will have on intellectual property? Discuss in the 3D Printing IP issues forum thread on 3DPB.com