The era of personal 3D printing is (almost) here.
Machines capable of printing 3D objects have been around for many years. But recently this fascinating technology has reached the point where the personal 3D printer has become a reality. At this year’s CES, for example, MakerBot Industries and Cubify both introduced 3D printers for the everyday consumer. Cubify also introduced a cloud-based 3D printing service, where a consumer can upload 3D data, then Cubify will have it printed and delivered.
The prices of personal 3D printers are still a bit too high to appeal to the average consumer – some numbers I’ve seen have been in the $1,200 to $1,700 range. But the raw material used by the 3D printers, their “ink” equivalent, is surprisingly inexpensive. For example, you can purchase about 1kg of raw plastic material for little more than the cost of an ink jet printer cartridge. And as with other technologies, expect the prices of the 3D printers to continue to drop.
So what does this mean for your intellectual property?
Consider this scenario: a consumer purchases your new product, creates a 3D scan of it (or a portion of it), uploads the 3D scan data to a file-sharing website, and suddenly anyone, anywhere in the world, can print your product using the 3D scan data and their own 3D printer.
Sound far-fetched? It’s not. In fact, just recently The Pirate Bay announced the creation of a new portion of their file-sharing website devoted to 3D scans, which they are calling “physibles.” Are you ready if your patented product shows up in the “physibles” library?
While there may not yet be a 3D printer in every home, the day is coming, probably sooner than we imagine. So consider this: the patent application you are drafting today should be ready to protect the invention for the next 20 years, during which time 3D printing is likely to become as common as ink-jet printers are today. Take this into account while you plan your patent strategy. Are there any aspects of the invention that could be vulnerable to virtual copying? For example, are there any potential embodiments that could include transfer of 3D model data and 3D printing?
Also, think about whether it may be appropriate to seek one or more design patents for various aspects of the product. Are there important components that could be covered by a design patent?
While you’re at it, remember to be careful with the scope of your design patents. Are there portions of the design that could be modified by a user, e.g., by manipulating the 3D design using CAD software, without departing from the novel aspect of your invention? If so, those portions of the design patent drawings should probably be shown in broken lines. Can your product be broken down into multiple components that may have their own novel designs? If so, you may want to consider pursuing multiple design patents.
Personal 3D printing is an exciting new technology. The potential uses for 3D printing extend beyond what I can imagine. But, unfortunately, the potential uses include activities that could infringe on other’s intellectual property rights. So it’s important to begin taking this potential problem into consideration when planning an IP strategy. As many of us have seen, the current rate of advancements in technology have a way of making today’s possibilities into tomorrow’s realities.
Have you started to consider the implications of 3D printing and how it may affect your or your client’s intellectual property? If so, how has it affected your approach to obtaining IP? Let me know in the comments below!