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3D printing creates new obstacles for intellectual property law

In the 1990s, Napster brought peer-to-peer file sharing to the masses and forever changed the landscape of intellectual property law regarding music and other downloadable electronic media. Today, 3D printing is poised to create similar challenges in the world of three-dimensional objects.

Much as a traditional printer can be used to reproduce two-dimensional images, 3D printing allows users to recreate three-dimensional objects from a digital blueprint. Currently, the technology is fairly limited in terms of the size and material of its end products and can only be used to create small, plastic objects. However, it is advancing quickly. 

Soon, experts predict that consumers will be able to use 3D printers to produce a wide range of products at home that would otherwise need to be purchased, such as toys, tools, works of art and replacement parts for home appliances. This has the potential to undermine the rights of intellectual property owners to profit from their designs, just as downloadable music affected members of the music industry.

The first patents for 3D printing were filed decades ago and are now expired or nearing expiration. This means that the technology is now available for others to use without fear of patent infringement lawsuits. As a result, 3D printers are becoming more widely available to consumers at a lower cost than was possible just a few years ago.

As 3D printing capabilities continue to grow, countless of businesses and individuals in California are likely to be affected. Intellectual property owners can get a head start now by talking with an attorney about their rights and the steps that are available to help protect their interests.

Source: Financial Post, "3D printing not unlike Napster in challenging intellectual property law," Julius Melnitzer, July 31, 2014

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