Intellectual Property Protection and On Demand 3D Printing

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

3D printing promises more efficient mass customization and rapid prototyping. It also has the potential to expose manufacturers to the large scale of intellectual property infringement akin to that experienced by media companies as consumers adopted digital music technologies.

3D Printing Basics

To create an object with 3D printing, one needs two things: a 3D printer and a design file.

Since the first patent for a 3D printer was granted in 1986 to Charles Hull for an 'Apparatus for Production of Three Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography', the technology has advanced to the point that low-cost 3D printers are available to do-it-yourself (DIY) practitioners. Online services, such as Sculpteo and Shapeways, allow virtually anyone with access to the Internet to contract for production and delivery of 3D printed objects.

Design files can come from a few sources. Designers and artists can create designs files using standard computer aided design software. Consumers of 3D printed goods can also browse repositories of shared design files, such as Thingiverse and Pinshape. Finally, consumers can create 3D design files by photographing an object and using 3D design rendering software, such as Autodesk's 123D Catch.

3D Printing and Parallels with Digital Music Technologies

3D printing companies that follow the music industry models of Apple's iTunes and Bandcamp, which work with artist and publishers to make digital music available online, enable the rapid adoption of 3D printing. Since digital design files are easily shared, and potentially in ways that violate copyright or patents, 3D printing raises new questions about how owners of IP can protect themselves in the age of low-cost 3D printing and design files.

3D printing, while growing in popularity, is not a mass consumer phenomenon that warrants immediate legislative action, according to a recent legal study. The same research finds that only 35% of users who upload design files license their work. This will likely change as the composition of users shift from predominantly early adopters motivated to explore the technology to late adopters using the technology for business objectives.

Options for Managing IP and 3D Printing

3D printing certainly has the potential for enabling infringement of IP, but it also creates new opportunities for interacting with customers and expanding markets. Different IPOs are looking at the implication for design files beyond copyright. Manufacturers and designers should consider several strategies for mitigating the potential risk of IP infringement from 3D printing while at the same time leveraging 3D printing to develop brand awareness and market share.Different IPOs are looking at the implication of design files- beyond copyright

Four options can be used individually or in combination to maximize the benefit of intellectual property with regards to 3D printing:

  • Monitoring for potential infringement
  • Employing cyber security measures to protect designs
  • Open source some IP as a loss leader to selling other, higher margin products
  • Creating innovative uses of 3D printing technologies to engage consumers and build market share

One option to protect design IP is to use brand monitoring types of services that scan social media, file sharing and other digital collaboration venues for indications of IP violations. In particular, brand monitoring software can look for specific design files or references to product names in the context of 3D printing discussions. Owners of IP could respond to violations by using existing legal remedies designed to protect intellectual property. This option will incur multiple types of costs, including the cost of a brand monitoring service and legal expenses associated with measures to stop infringement. It does, however, provide information on the state of 3D printing-related activities in the market, possibly including market intelligence on competitor's products as well.

Protecting design files is essential to protecting trade secrets and other IP. Complex designs that cannot be captured from an object and 3D design rendering programs can be reverse engineered but acquiring copies of computer aided design files from the manufacturer's computer network may be faster and less expensive. This can explain the significant incidence of state-sponsored industrial espionage, which targets a wide array of industries, according to U.S. Justice Department. Cybersecurity measures, such as identity management, access controls, encryption, vulnerability scanning, server and network monitoring, as well as anti-malware and anti-phishing controls, must be in place to protect intellectual property assets.

Businesses may wish to consider the potential benefits of making some IP publicly available and without costs. Many software vendors have opted to make their software available under an open source license. Vendors forfeit licensing revenue for the software but gain other advantages, such as wider adoption that can generate other revenue streams, such as consulting services. Similarly, manufactures may decide to release design documents for low margin parts that are often replaced in high margin devices. Licensing for 3D printing, of course, deals with tangible objects and not software so open hardware licenses, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) open hardware license may be a more appropriate model.

A fourth option is to consider 3D printing technology a new and innovative way to engage with customers. The music industry provides a useful example again. Bandcamp provides musicians with customizable microsites to offer free and paid music. The site provides other features, such as gift purchases and social media functions, such as sharing song and album lists. A study by Bandcamp found that customers who began Web searches looking for free copies of music eventually made purchases on Bandcamp, instead. Businesses that can leverage existing, large-scale social networks, such as Facebook, and more specialized niche services with social media aspects, such as Bandcamp, can create new opportunities to interact with customers and generate sales.


There are obvious parallels between 3D printing and digital music technologies. In both cases there are potential for large scale copyright infringement and other violations of intellectual property. The initial business model of the song sharing service Napster allowed users to upload and share copyrighted material eventually leading to copyright infringement actions that led to a restructuring of the company's business model. Something similar could happen in the 3D printing market but innovative manufactures and designers may be able to avoid the potential negative aspects of this emerging technology and instead use it to their advantage. Bandcamp, not Napster, may be the model service to focus on and understand.