Instant Intellectual Property Violations
POSTED BY Charles E. Root Jr. MS. AT 12:19 P.M. NOVEMBER 18, 2010
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Protecting Your IP in the Age of Home Manufacturing
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.
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
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
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.TAGS: Disruption