Have you experienced the future yet? Have you touched the technological fringe, of Star Trek-like replicator devices? I'm speaking of 3D printers, and they could have a profound impact on how you look at intellectual property (IP).
Throughout manufacturing history, an inventor would generally create an item, perhaps prototype it in his garage from cobbled-together materials and hours of labor, seek patents for the idea, and then enlist a manufacturer to produce the object in order to sell it.
Enter: The 21st century. Now an inventor only needs to come up with an idea, program the dimensions of the object in to a computer and press "Print," sending the code to his 3D printer, and he has a viable prototype or, depending on the complexity of the object, even a finished product, skipping the manufacturer altogether! Unfortunately, this streamlined "idea-to-product" process also opens the door to intellectual property theft, as surely as the photocopier and CD-burner eased the barrier to copyright violations.
If you are unfamiliar with 3D printers, they are essentially ink-jet printers capable of printing with materials other than ink (generally ABS plastic), and through the process of layering, in more than two dimensions. There are also models that use lasers to expose liquid polymers to light, hardening the polymer. Once they were only the realm of industrial heavyweights because of stratospheric prices for the equipment and supplies. These 3D printers can now be built for under $1,000 US, making it affordable for the "Do-It-Yourselfer" to have one on her desktop.
Imagine this scenario: You spend the tens of thousands of dollars to bring a product to market, and patent-protect it. Within days of your product's release, the device has been scanned (via a 3D printer add-on that cost only $200), its dimensions transformed into computer code, and that code transmitted across the globe via the internet. Thousands of people with 3D printers can then take this pirated information and create exact copies of your device in their homes. A 5-pound roll of ABS plastic is as inexpensive as $50. A simple product such as a cup or picture frame might use a few ounces of plastic in its creation, so depending on the retail cost of your product, it might be very economical for someone to simply print a copy of it at home instead of purchasing it in a store.
This near-future or even current event presents a whole series of interesting intellectual property questions such as: Who owns the computer code to create a 3D copy of your product? Should you include that code and its variations in your patent application? How do you prevent the "Casual Thief" from copying your device? Can you think of every new advanced material of which your device could be made?
The same challenges that now face the book, film, music and computer game industries
regarding piracy are going to become front and center for just about every other
manufacturing industry in the near future.
The first line of defense for an inventor most likely lies in the world of design patents. In the US, a design patent is granted on the ornamental design of a functional item. These patents take some creativity on the inventor's part, as design patents can be thwarted by making even the simplest of ornamental changes to the object in question. An inventor will want to think of every possible change that may be done to the design of his or her product. For example, a pen might have a smooth shaft, a shaft with ridges, or indentations. The cap might be square or round. All those changes will need to be considered to make your design copy proof from a legal stand point.
While this extra work may seem daunting, it also opens up new avenues for the inventor to profit from his inventions. Perhaps now an inventor can sell only the 3D coding for a product directly to the end users, bypassing the factory and mass production. An additional advantage is that code can be heavily protected by digital rights management software, thus ensuring some level of control. In fact, each sale of the code could include a unique identifier, and should someone resell your code or scan your device and make a copy, that code would be incorporated in to each copy allowing for a way to track back to the original IP violator.
In less affluent countries, an inventor could license code to small-time production shops. The public could then come in to the store, choose the inventor's product from a catalog, and have the device created on the spot. Licensing generally offers a certain degree of intellectual property control for the original inventor.
Naturally, in addition to the intellectual property considerations, the rise of in-home 3D printing is going to have a substantial impact on the world economy. Wealth is going to be transferred directly to the creators of ideas, and those that were traditionally middle men or end producers, are going to see significant wealth reductions.
So how should an inventor or corporation face this bold new future? First, they should read-up as much as possible on new 3D printing technology. Second, they should enlist the services of an intellectual property firm which has faced similar industry changing challenges in the past, and knows how to use intellectual property frameworks to protect inventors and uncover the new opportunities. With such a one-two punch, inventors and corporations can continue to be "IP savvy" in this fast-changing new field.