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3-D Printing: New Dimension for IP Law?

Just as inkjet printers deposit drops of ink to create a document, 3-D printers lay down bits of plastic, metal, or other material to build an object. But as 3-D printers enter the consumer market, they may also fashion new challenges for intellectual property law.

Commercial 3-D printers, which can cost $50,000, are already being used to manufacture parts for aircraft and other machinery. Now, $500 home printers are allowing consumers to download design files and print items as diverse as jewelry, smartphone cases, and kitchen gadgets. Meanwhile, retailers like Staples have plans to offer 3-D printing as a service.

“3-D printing is yet another manifestation of reproduction capabilities extending to the masses,” points out Michael Jacobs, a Morrison & Foerster partner. “Xerox machines were first. Videos were another example; music downloads yet another.  Each time, the IP law has come under stress, yet accommodations have been reached. That will happen with 3-D printing, as well.”

Still, how those eventualities play out remains to be seen. For example, “there could be right-of-publicity issues affected by 3-D printing,” says Craig Whitney, a senior litigation associate at Morrison & Foerster. “A bobble-head doll of your favorite athlete or actor could be yours at the click of a button, with no control by or compensation to the celebrity whose image is being misappropriated.”

What’s more, 3-D printing could alter market segments, Whitney suggests. “Makers of consumer electronics, for example—particularly hand-held devices—could see consumers sharing images of replacement parts or after-market products and printing them,” he says. “That could supplant an entire market.”

Companies that create tangible, three-dimensional objects are no longer immune to the risks of file sharing that the music and film industries have dealt with for more than a decade.

Some IP holders will want to vigorously defend against patent or copyright infringement related to 3-D printing, while others may be wiser to embrace it—for example, by offering files that let consumers print their own copies of products or spare parts. “This technology is here, and it’s only growing,” Whitney says. “Rather than fight it, you might want to take advantage of it to monetize your copyrights.”

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