3D Printing: Protecting Intellectual Property Rights

By Kalani Kirk Hausman, Richard Horne

Without the barrier created by 3D Systems’s control of the original SLA patents, the PolyJet alternative might not have become available for much longer. As the earliest additive manufacturing technologies come out of patent control — and new technologies are developed — new opportunities will emerge for the transformation of manufacturing and the production of entirely new products.

As with the music and motion picture industries, new technologies create a threat to the intellectual property of established companies. Schemes are already being developed to provide some type of Digital Rights Management (DRM) that will restrict 3D models to control what types of materials they are licensed for or to restrict the number of copies that can be produced from a single 3D design file.

As long as self-built 3D printers are available, however, mandatory DRM controls are likely to remain absent for home production systems. Commercial vendors might be forced to comply with some type of DRM solution, with complex algorithms scanning each model to see if it violates someone else’s intellectual property or includes items restricted from fabrication.

To make this possible, it will first be necessary to develop a database of all protected intellectual property designs — and then create a search engine that can be linked to a 3D printer’s software to approve or deny the fabrication of a particular design.

Aside from potential attacks on such a service from people who support open-source design, not much will prevent an operator from bypassing a designer’s controls on the type of materials that can be used, replacing (say) an aluminum powder cartridge with a gold powder cartridge — regardless of whether the designer ever intended a solid gold version of the object.