Will 3D Printers Bring 3k Lawsuits?

BUSINESS

3D printing technology “will do for physical objects what MP3 files did for music,” says an upcoming legal article. Industries from medical-device makers to auto manufacturers will have to respond. (New York Times)

Use our resources to better understand intellectual property, counterfeiting, and piracy.

This pie chart displays the percentage use of "rapid prototyping," a manufacturing process that uses computer-aided design (CAD) to create a scale model of a product, or part of a product. (The data are dated—this information is from 2000.) 3D printing is expected to have a dramatic impact on rapid prototyping and other manufacturing processes. Image by Zureks, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This pie chart displays the percentage use of “rapid prototyping,” a manufacturing process that uses computer-aided design (CAD) to create a scale model of a product, or part of a product. (The data are dated—this information is from 2000.) 3D printing is expected to have a dramatic impact on rapid prototyping and other manufacturing processes.
Image by Zureks, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Discussion Ideas

  • One legal expert quoted in the NY Times article says 3D printing technology “will do for physical objects what MP3 files did for music.” What did MP3 files do for music?
    • Booming in the 1990s, computer technology allowed users to share files easily and at little to no cost. MP3 is the standard audio format for most digital audio players.
    • Using file-sharing software such as Napster, millions of users were able to share millions of music files without having to actually purchase the music. Artists, record companies, and others in the music industry consequently lost millions of dollars in revenue.
    • File-sharing software came under legal attack, as its users were violating copyright. They did not have the right to copy music without permission, and the music industry called the practice “music piracy.” (This piracy had existed for decades, through mixed tapes, DJ mixes, and music-sharing processes. MP3s simply made the process much quicker and available to many more people, threatening the professional music industry.)
    • The music industry was forced to respond to MP3 technology by reforming its way of doing business. Many artists began to generate greater revenue from performances than sales. For a low fee, sites such as iTunes provided higher-quality files than the free, file-sharing sites.
  • Read through our activity “Intellectual Property: Innovation and Invention.” What are some similarities between the technology and legal challenges to music file-sharing and legal challenges to 3D printing? What are some differences?
    • Similarities
      • Both technologies may allow users to obtain the product without having to pay for it.
      • Both technologies may allow users to easily violate the legal rights of the people who created or own the original product.
    • Differences
      • Music file-sharing services may allow users to violate copyright, while 3D printers may allow users to violate patent law. Copyright protects original creations, such as music. Patents protect inventions, such as medical products.
      • Music file-sharing services offer much narrower opportunities than the possibilities of 3D printing. 3D printers could allow users to illegally fabricate medical devices, car parts, consumer products such as toothbrushes, and even weapons. While the MP3 revolution radically changed the music industry, the 3D printing revolution could impact a much larger segment of the global economy.
  • How do you think the affected industries could respond to possible violations of patent law? Review the short NY Times article, and read our activity “Campaigns Against Counterfeiting and Piracy” for some ideas.
    • The NY Times article is not optimistic: “Just as record companies were unable to stop music file-sharing, manufacturers will not be able to prevent the proliferation of 3-D printing,” according to one legal expert.
    • Similarly, the activity offers few ideas outside a public-awareness campaign.
    • Still, some options remain:
      • patent-holders could sue users who illegally reproduce their product
      • industries could create high-quality, professional outlets for 3D printing technology (as iTunes did for music file-sharing)
      • “go after the makers of the printing hardware, but that would be a misguided approach centered on a general-purpose technology with many legal uses,” according to the article.
      • “sue the websites that host the software that enables the printers to manufacture the objects, but this, too, could stymie perfectly legal inventions and end up putting a stranglehold on innovation,” the article continues.
      • ideas?

3 responses to “Will 3D Printers Bring 3k Lawsuits?

  1. “For a low fee, sites such as iTunes provided higher-quality files than the free, file-sharing sites” – What a load of rubbish – the shared files are just as high quality. This sounds like those ‘would you steal a car’ adverts before a movie showing a terrible copy of the film made with a cam corder – in reality pirate copies are true 1080p just like blu-ray.

    I’m not standing up for piracy, but it annoys me when the industry simply lies – it looks like desperation. There are many new business models for artists that can fit around file sharing.

    • You’re right—that’s sloppy writing on my part. I should have written something like “you were more likely to encounter a corrupt file on a file-sharing site than on a corporate site such as iTunes or Amazon.”

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