If you search the two terms, intellectual property and 3D printing, you will find a hefty debate on how the new world of 3d printing is attacking or liberating, depending on your perspective, the consuming public. After working through the Hasbro and Shapeways post earlier today, I decided to take a slightly deeper look at the intellectual property climate related to 3D printing.
A number of legal firms can be found that offer suggestions and advice on how one might choose to protect a brand and its intellectual property (IP) rights, if they were not going to open up their IP as Hasbro recently did. Some suggested ways to adapt the business model in the following ways, if you’re concerned about 3D technology “stealing a product” away:
Make downloading difficult with file encryption and other secure means. I think this has been tried more than once… Of course, you can make sure, as many do, that a digital version never gets out into the public’s hands to begin with.
Offer your files like Netflix does – in a streaming format only – so that the file is only sent to the 3D printer once. You can read Tom Simonite’s post about it on the MIT Technology Review.
Add value differentiation to 3D printed items (customization as Hasbro is allowing perhaps)
More arcane methods to protect your IP were found, but most if not all of them could potentially backfire depending on your community and customer prospects.
To be clear on my above comment, Hasbro hasn’t said – “just copy what you want, we’re fine with that.” Not at all. They have started down a path of sharing their IP, in a controlled and limited way, as it relates to the My Little Pony brand (and other brands in the future according to the company) on the SuperFanArt site. I view it as co-creation and a smart decision, but it won’t work for every company and its products.
The IP challenge partly centers on that there is not yet a process where you can prevent or earn proceeds from someone duplicating your creation. Once you release your digital file, anyone can duplicate it and they will. I suppose there are models, like Shapeways that I wrote about earlier today, where a seller, an artist, a creator, can sell a particular product, but in that model it is the final 3d printed product that is for sale, not the digital creation or file. The bigger issue is when someone reverse engineers a product, scans or digitizes the various parts of it, and puts them online.
IP attorney Paven Mahotra, who also specializes in IP law, explores how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) may be applied in the world of 3D printing and in the above situation. He outlines how the DMCA could be used mainly as takedown notices to the sites, like Shapeways or Thingiverse, when and where they act as repositories, to keep people from uploading pirated creations. But both of those sites have detailed Terms of Service (TOS). I might add that Thingiverse offers the standard TOS and then has a “In Plain English” version that is excellent. If you violate the terms, you are putting yourself in harm’s way.
Mahotra also cites an interesting statistic about patent applications: Since 2003, 3,500 patents related to 3D printing have been granted. He concludes that as more patents are granted the number of lawsuits will rise. You can read his post in PDF form here.
It is likely that the legal climate won’t change, and that brand stewards and their corporate parents will remain steadfast against any sort of co-creation with fans, but 3d printing will continue to change how we approach design and creation. How we approach this new era, these new technologies, as startup owners and established corporate executives, may allow us to avoid some of the pain that the music and movie industries have endured. Hasbro is shining a light on how it can potentially be handled.
I found that my Forbes contributor colleague, Michael Stone, said it well in his post, A 3D Design For Licensing Disruption:
“A brand that is able to legitimize and license the use of its products for home production will have found a new way to connect to its customers. In some respects, this is no different from opening a new retail store or entering a new market – but the store is in the customer’s living room, and the market is the person pressing print. In terms of getting closer to the customer, this is as close as it gets. And rather than penalize the early adopters who share their designs online, brands should reward their loyalty and build the fan base in the community…”