2013: 3D printing sparks patent law armageddon

09 Jan
Somebody is eventually going to sue over these 3D-printed heads (if they haven't already).

Somebody is eventually going to sue over these 3D-printed heads (if they haven’t already).

In my 2012 wrap-up, I mentioned how 3D printers are really going to kick the copyright wars into high gear. With the cost of the machines dropping precipitously – basic models such as the Portabee can be had for as low as $500 – the world is literally on the cusp of a revolution.

It’s actually hard to overstate how much things will change over the next few years as these printers become commonplace. On the industrial side, they hold the promise of bringing manufacturing back from China for many western interests. As several writers have pointed out, American companies such as Apple could make iPhones in the United States because printing out products and having them assembled by robots will be even cheaper than the human labour in China.

That will have huge ramifications. It would make a good chunk of lower- and middle-class jobs obsolete on both sides of the world and could also reverse globalization.

That’s a bigger, longer-term issue, but the more immediate fireworks are likely to be felt on the individual consumer level, and likely in 2013. The legal wranglings have already started. As Clive Thompson wrote in Wired last year, Games Workshop went after an individual who had posted 3D printer designs online of its Warhammer miniatures. The amateur designer, fearful of a lawsuit, promptly removed his designs.

Yet experts point out that physical objects are covered more by patent law, which is looser and a lot harder to enforce than copyright law. Translation: the push for stronger patent laws is about to ratchet up, especially with The Pirate Bay launching Physibles, its own category of 3D printer designs.

Indeed, a patent has already been filed for what is effectively 3D printer DRM.

The irony of this is that patent laws are already wildly out of control, with everyone suing everyone and an entire category of companies (patent trolls) existing solely to litigate against those who have allegedly infringed. Manufacturers and designers won’t be able to ignore 3D printing for much longer, so there’ll be more conflicts in 2013 like those involving Games Workshop.

It’s going to make for an exciting year – let the copyright and patent armageddon begin.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 9, 2013 in 3D printers


One response to “2013: 3D printing sparks patent law armageddon

  1. Old Fart

    January 9, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Being an old fart who has used carbon paper, Gestetners, manual and electric typewriters, teletypes, dot-matrix, line, band, thermal, laser, and inkjet printers (am I leaving any out?) I feel confident that it’s only a matter of time before 3D printers are in every home doing things we can’t even imagine today at an impossibly low cost.

    I used to think those mainframe-scale line printers were awesome. Even today I’m in awe of a cheap ink-jet that can produce beautiful text and colour images without streaking or banding.

    One of the big hurdles to surmount will be the various materials required to print different objects. Plastic resin is easy, but metal that can withstand heavy wear, heat, and pressure, such as brake rotors and pressure vessels, likely won’t be practical until I’m too old to take advantage of it. Will you be able to reprint that glass vase that just shattered? Maybe.

    At the current and near-term speed of 3D printing, I can’t see anyone printing a phone that requires millions of units at launch. Yet.

    One huge advantage will be that parts departments for any product will no longer be large warehouses. You just call ahead, they print the part, and it’s ready for you by the time you get there. The carbon offset of not shipping even lightweight but bulky products will be enormous.

    One downside is, if you think products are cheaply made crap today, wait until you can replace parts in a few minutes for a few pennies. The stuff you buy might not even make it home from the store intact. 🙂

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