The Value of Blockchain for Securing 3D Printed Intellectual Property

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Plagiarism is always a concern in the 3D printing world. For makers, this is an annoyance, albeit a sizable one. But when it comes to things like medical devices and aerospace components, plagiarism becomes a serious danger. In a paper entitled “Intellectual Property Protection and Licensing of 3D Print with Blockchain Technology,” a group of researchers discuss the importance of protecting intellectual property in 3D printing – and how blockchain technology can help.

The researchers discuss creating a “Chain of Trust” for use in the 3D printing industry. While blockchain technology is more widely known in the financial world, especially regarding bitcoin, it is applicable to 3D printing as well. A license can be issued to specific users to print a certain number of a component, for example. The researchers describe a hypothetical situation in which this could work:

“Alice authorizes Bob to print four copies of a certain product in a Blockchain. A so called Smart Contract files the license information in the Blockchain and secures that only the receipient, Bob, has the permission to update the license, e.g. register a printer part to it. Later, Bob‘s printer verifies the license before starting to print. Additionally, the serial numbers of the separately printed components can be written into the Blockchain to proof type and quantity having been printed in accordance with the license terms.”

The Chain of Trust can be closed by including trusted printers, building a chain from copyright holder to service provider. The researchers point to the project Secure Additive Manufacturing Platform (SAMPL), which is focused on creating consistent Chains of Trust for commercial additive manufacturing. The entire process, from the development of digital 3D data to the labeling of 3D printed components with RFID chips, is made visible.

The researchers also describe a scenario in which none of the parties – the customer, the printing service provider and the licensee – do not trust each other. First it must be determined who owns the design and whether the part has already been licensed by someone else.

“Once a customer buys a license from an owner, this can be done atomically on the Blockchain by exchanging the cryptocurrency for a license token,’ the researchers explain. “This ensures that none of the parties withdraws prematurely from the transaction. The customer gets the license only if he has already paid, and the licensor must transfer the license as soon as he has received the money. For example, the licensor cannot receive the payment and disappear afterwards. Once a license has been acquired, it can be ‘sold’ by the customer to a print service provider.”

Once the printing service provider has a license, they can download the CAD file. When the customer receives the part, they can look up, in the blockchain, whether the part has been registered for a license.

Currently, there is no known commercial platform which is required to digitally and traceably administrate data relevant for 3D printing taking into account digital licenses, according to the researchers; however, that gap can be filled by an integration of the SAMPL platform and a 3D printing blockchain.

“Saving and administrating digital licenses requires a database ensuring the longterm stability of its entries,” they conclude. “However, saving new license transactions such as updates of digital versions or changes in ownership are to be made possible. Having proven highest demands in terms of reliability and security with its first big implementation as a basis for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, Blockchain-Technology offers that kind of register.”

Authors of the paper include Felix Engelmann, Martin Holland, Christopher Nigischer and Josip Stjepandic.

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