After long being relegated to the world of hobbyists and engineers, 3-D printers are beginning to seep into the mainstream consciousness. A rapid drop in the price of the technology is making small-scale manufacturing processes available to small businesses and individual consumers, while raising all sorts of legal questions. Various companies are currently battling over patents related to the technology itself, and copyright questions loom as users gain an unprecedented ability to create knockoffs of intellectual property. Meanwhile, the recent posting of schematics for a 3-D printed gun spurred an emotional outcry by the public and government leaders.
Large corporations have used the technology on a variety of scales since the 1980s, but drops in prices are bringing it to Main Street, with Staples Inc. announcing plans to offer the Cube, designed by 3D Systems Inc., in its stores with a starting price of $1,300 starting in June. The printer can already be purchased on Staples' website.
The opposite of carving or sculpting, 3-D printing is an additive manufacturing process more akin to the creation of silicon wafers - the printer applies layers of plastic on top of one another to create a three-dimensional form.
Paven Malhotra, who litigates intellectual property cases for Keker & Van Nest LLP, said plastic as a medium is just the tip of the iceberg.
"Researchers are trying to use 3-D printers for all sorts of unique products and services - to build human cells, to build food, to build reefs using concrete around the Great Barrier Reef," he said. "3-D printing has the potential to be the next great disruptive technology."
In San Francisco, a company is already offering the service to the public in the way that FedEx Office does for 2-D printing. John Vegher, who owns the 3-D printing shop Moddler, said he uses machines from two different 3-D printer makers.
Competition among 3-D printer companies has already led to consolidation in the industry and patent infringement lawsuits.
3D Systems sued competitor Formlabs and one of its financiers, Kickstarter Inc., in federal court in South Carolina last November for alleged patent infringement. The case pits Greenville, S.C. firm Dority & Manning PA for 3D Systems against nearby Farnsworth Law Offices and Bingham McCutchen for Formlabs. 3D Systems v. Formlabs et al., 12-CV-3323 (D.S.C., filed Nov. 20, 2012).
"It will be a big area of litigation going forward," Malhotra said.
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About Paven Malhotra
Mr. Malhotra’s practice focuses on complex commercial and white collar criminal litigation, including intellectual property, legal malpractice, securities, and antitrust. Mr. Malhotra has been an active member of three trial teams, serving as one of the principal associates in one of the largest trade secrets cases ever tried in California. He has also represented various media companies, news outlets, and production companies in litigation and administrative proceedings, as well as maintained an active pro bono practice.