3D Printing: Who Owns the Designs?

Most people have a narrow image of 3D printing: Hobbyists extruding plastic trinkets on slow-moving 3D printers as the ubiquitous cat quizzically hovers over the printer.

However, 3D printing—more accurately labeled additive manufacturing (the layering of materials is an additive, not reductive, process)—is a more serious business with serious implications for intellectual property rights. On the consumer side, the making of counterfeit goods will always be a perennial problem, but protecting the digital designs behind industrial products and parts produced through additive manufacturing is new territory—as is the process.

Well-designed and complex digital blueprints are the foundation of additive manufacturing and, like digital music and video files, are ripe for piracy through mass-electronic distribution. But the heart of what makes 3D manufacturing valuable—customization—affords some built-in protection from the pirates. Today’s additive manufacturing is mostly to make specific replacement parts for things like jet engines or prosthesis that are customized for an individual (not a type of individual). Mass production isn’t the point (at least not for now and the near future). Industries that mass produce products for which adding customization is not important have spent billions of dollars in infrastructure and tooling. It will likely take years for most mass production to make the switch from traditional processes to new ones.

Nevertheless, digital piracy is practically assured like it was when mp3 audio files got distributed over the Internet, setting off an industry-burning firestorm. From those ashes rose the idea of developing services (i.e., iTunes) that are intuitive to use and reasonable—basically, making it easier to pay for copyrighted material instead of going through the more complicated and time-consuming steps of stealing. Of course, it’s debatable how effective the media industry has been in curbing the practice. In fairness, it’s not a perfect analogy with 3D printing. Consumers of pirated media aren’t all that interested in customizing a movie or a song—they just want an exact replication of the original.

Large additive manufacturers are more motivated than consumers to acquire copyrighted material in an efficient, safe and legal manner. Not only do most companies want to avoid costly post-production litigation by making sure that the designs/blueprints are legally sourced, they also want assurances that electronic distribution is secure and safe, and that the service providers adhere to interoperability industry standards (as they become developed). New methods such as blockchain technology marry security and purchasing or licensing permissions in a way that may be effective for exchanges that provide digital blueprints or digital scanning services. Those service providers who can claim an industry “stamp of approval” for data security, legal sourcing and transparent electronic transactions could have a leg up on the competition.

Now, the industry just needs someone to design that “stamp of approval” and 3D print it (sans the cat).