The rise of 3D printing technology has opened up a world of possibilities for small businesses and technology entrepreneurs. Use of this printing method can reduce overall costs for both businesses and consumers. It makes products readily available to consumers through computer-aided design (CAD) files - provided they have the technology necessary to "print" it into physical form.
Just as with the development of digital music, this advance in technology is not without a level of risk to your intellectual property rights. How do you protect the patent on a product that is so easily-shareable?
Just like music, video and photo files, CAD files are digital and can be posted on file-sharing services. And just like services like Napster or Grokster shared music while infringing on copyright, sharing CAD files can violate U.S. patent laws. Or does it?
In many ways, the patent system is inadequate when addressing digital media. The CAD files are merely blueprints, and the patent isn't infringed upon until the object is "made" through the 3D printing process. This can cause issues, as 3D printers are harder to trace than the actual CAD files.
Or, as explained in a recent Scientific American article:
"Each printed copy of an invention is a lost potential sale to the patent holder. But, to sue for infringement, the patent owner would need to be aware that someone is using a 3D printer to make the patented invention. And that's a very tall order since these printers are widely dispersed across households and businesses."
Alternatively, the article continues, patent owners can go after the services that are facilitating the infringements, including those sharing or selling the CAD files of the patented products.
The problem with this approach is, unlike music which everyone knows is copyrighted, it may not be common knowledge that a particular product is patented. In the eyes of many, the problem will not be solved unless patent laws are amended to include the digital files, as is the case with copyright.