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3D Printing Symposium Discusses the Future of This New Disruptive Technology

· March 2, 2015

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Last week the American University Intellectual Property Brief hosted a symposium on 3D Printing at American University Washington College of Law (a topic previously examined in a variety of DisCo posts [1], [2], [3]). The speakers discussed many of the dominant policy and legal implications presented by this new technology.

The opening keynote speaker, Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge, forecast some of the particular issues that the technology was sure to present. He began “3D printing is going to create legal and policy questions, to put it nicely; a lot of lawsuits to put it not so nicely.”  One of his main concerns was that people may begin to assume IP rights exist in objects where none may exist. He stated “the masses are now coming to patent,” and that the patent world should take note after watching their copyright counterparts “squirm” over very similar issues throughout the past decade. He warned against imposing copyright concepts concerning protectability onto patent, and that people should not inherently move to licensing when “maybe they don’t have to license at all.”

When Michael Carroll, the Director of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at WCL, introduced the first panel he stated from an IP perspective 3D printing was “Napster for patents.” Weinberg had earlier stated that “the lesson from recent history is the way you make money and succeed is to be the first person or first couple of people to come to terms with this new disruption.” He found the the best fiscal approach for companies moving forward might be to embrace the technology rather than file lawsuits. These statements forewarn against subjecting this new technology to the same knee-jerk overprotective reactions that new disruptive technologies have faced in the past. By embracing a more complacent and accepting approach all sides may be able to avoid costly litigation and prosper.

Many of the panelists echoed these disruptive sentiments or versions of them. John Hornick of Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP started his presentation with a disruptive theme: “everything will change when you can make anything.” He stated that this technology had the potential to severely undermine intellectual property rights through his “five Is”: infringement, identification, irrelevancy, impracticality, and impossibility. Hornick stated that in the wake of this new technology IP rights will become “increasingly irrelevant” and even “impotent.” He suggested that other types of IP rights such as trade secrets may have to take center stage, or other business-based models. He also spoke about the specific issues for brands, and how it is possible they could no longer rely on traditional IP protection models when anyone can print their products. The implications of these concepts are severe for many companies and echo the recurring themes of disruption that new technologies often present. Hornick even likened 3D printing to something of an industrial revolution by allowing us to “move from a culture of mass production, to a culture of production by the masses.”

When discussing the possibility for legislation and regulation in this field there were a variety of opinions. Peer Munck of 3Discovered stated that he hoped Washington would “stay out of it.” One panelist, John Knapp of Solidoodle, considered whether legislators might expand the DMCA or create similar laws to reign in this field. Martyn Griffen of Public Knowledge spoke to the importance of educating Congress early on about this technology and Public Knowledge’s efforts in particular at their yearly event 3D/DC. He stated that people have taken note and that a congressman from California now even has a 3D printer in his office. As this technology becomes more accessible and understood it may fall to Congress to help protect innovation and not bend to old models.

Some panelists also seemed to believe the current legal model could continue to work in some ways. Knapp stated that even though 3D printing presented legal issues in a new way, they were not novel issues. Christopher Higgins of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe discussed the possibility that users or manufacturers could be liable under traditional models of vicarious, secondary, and direct liability and how they may apply. The courts will have to work by analogy in these cases and should use ones that are friendly to innovation.

The future of IP and technology will surely be affected by the 3D printing revolution, whether this means that old models will shape to fit the new technology, or new models will emerge. The debate and discussion will likely continue and increase as the technology improves and becomes more accessible. Hopefully, we have learned from the past and can accept and encourage this new innovation.

Alexandra El-Bayeh is a Law Clerk at CCIA and a 3L at American University Washington College of Law.

Intellectual Property

The Internet enables the free exchange of ideas and content that, in turn, promote creativity, commerce, and innovation. However, a balanced approach to copyright, trademarks, and patents is critical to this creative and entrepreneurial spirit the Internet has fostered. Consequently, it is our belief that the intellectual property system should encourage innovation, while not impeding new business models and open-source developments.