Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property

3D Printing: Digital Infringement & Digital Regulation

Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property

3D Printing: Digital Infringement & Digital Regulation

Article excerpt


¶1 Guns. Body parts. Implants for medical uses. Apparel and fashion accessories. Jewelry. Artwork. What do these all have in common? Each is a 3D printed object that can quickly and easily be printed by Do It Yourself ("DIY") consumers.1 3D printing has gained attention in the press recently, as commercially affordable additive manufacturing technology has become widely available. Hobbyists, enthusiasts, and artists are utilizing 3D printers to print objects for domestic and household uses. Additionally, the medical community has utilized 3D printing.2 3D printers can even be used to print other 3D printers.3

¶2 The availability of 3D printing technology to consumer masses and the ability to create and almost immediately 3D print objects has created a revolution. The DIY community never had to worry about infringing on patents since their work was unlikely to draw the attention of patent owners; however, the consumer availability of 3D printing has enabled a DIY consumer to create a design in the form of a digital file that can be easily transmitted and made available to others. The digital file is called a Computer Aided Design ("CAD") file, which is a virtual blueprint model that is used to produce 3D printed objects.4

¶3 As 3D printers have become increasingly accessible to the public, websites and online platforms that enable sharing of CAD files have grown in popularity. These websites enable an easy means to upload, share, and download CAD files via the Internet, just as was done with digital music files. As a result, online social communities built around 3D printing are arising. 3D printing enables the DIY community and small, innovative companies to rapidly and electronically share their electronic designs with others around the world. Additionally, crowd-funding websites have successfully launched online campaigns aimed at reducing the cost of 3D printing, which allows even more people to access this technology.

¶4 Moreover, physical products are already being designed, sold, and distributed on the computer and over the Internet, with end consumers only printing the physical manifestation of the product.5 In sum, the 3D printing revolution is enabling the consumer masses to easily create, develop, and print 3D objects as well as easily access, share, and modify electronic CAD files that enable printing.

¶5 Given the ease with which physical objects can rapidly be replicated, reproduced and repaired, there are many unanswered questions with respect to intellectual property rights. In particular, the legal regimes that made sense in the traditional manufacturing world are being challenged in their attempted application to the digital manufacturing world. There are newfound challenges to the law that govern utility patents, copyrights, design patents, trademarks, and trade dress as it applies to 3D printing.

¶6 Just like technological disruptions of the past, such as with the advent of the printing press, personal computing, and the Internet, the 3D printing revolution will also confront new issues at the intersection of technology, business, and law. With the rapid promotion of CAD files that enable printing of 3D objects, new issues will arise. There is not much jurisprudence regarding how patent law applies to 3D printing with respect to personal use. The Article analyzes some of the current scholarship on patent law in 3D printing and provides some new perspectives.

¶7 Professors Timothy Holbrook and Lucas Osborn have published one major work in the area of 3D printing and patent infringement.6 Holbrook and Osborn point out that the line between digital and tangible has eroded in the world of 3D printing and also provide an analysis supporting the idea that digital files can infringe patent claims in 3D printing.7 However, there are still gaps in their analysis, and there are unanswered questions concerning the best way to regulate digital patent infringement in the realm of 3D printing. …

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