By: Helen Vu,
As 3D printing technology continues to develop, the possibilities for its potential uses increases exponentially. Medical devices such as prosthetics, implants, and casts can now be produced at much lower prices than they would be otherwise. A company named KoreLogic used 3D printing to build the interior and exterior of an entire car, decreasing the vehicle’s weight and lowering costs. Through the process of additive manufacturing, which involves the layering of materials to create a fully formed object, owners of 3D printers can produce items they would normally only be able to obtain from a manufacturing company. While this technology can cut costs and increase efficiency for consumers, manufacturers must address the effect of 3D printing on their bottom lines. Every person that has the capability to print a product at home is a lost customer who would have otherwise purchased the item from the manufacturer. Patent rights have normally prevented people from copying processes and products that belong to others. However, as with other technological advancements, the law has yet to catch up to new developments in the area, and the legal world has not found a way to apply intellectual property law neatly to 3D printing.
While industrial 3D printers can cost up to $500,000, at-home consumers can purchase desktop models for as little as $400. These printers cannot produce objects as sophisticated as their more expensive counterparts but as manufacturers of 3D printers continue to improve their products, it will not be long before cheaper printers can create more than crude forms. This presents an issue for the many patent-owners who have exclusive rights to many products that can be reproduced using 3D printing technology. Although they certainly do not want others to produce items that they have an exclusive right to, the growing availability of 3D printers make it difficult to protect against all patent infringement involving additive manufacturing. Those who use extremely large-scale 3D printing in an industrial context may be easier to monitor but it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to identify every at-home user who commits patent infringement using widely available pieces of equipment such as computers and 3D printers.
Intellectual property lawyers have suggested various solutions to the problem of improper reproduction of patented objects, each with their own advantages and pitfalls. Because bringing legal action against every individual who infringes a patent through the use of a 3D printer would be impractical for the above-named reason, it seems more logical to go after those broader entities that facilitate the infringement. In order to print an object, the user must have a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) file that instructs the 3D printer on how to create the form. It has been suggested that those who create CAD files for products covered by patent protection and producers of software that help share those files should be held responsible for inducement of patent infringement. However, it is unclear how patent protection could cover CAD files, since they are digital blueprints of a patentable object rather than the objects themselves.
Retaining intellectual property rights and protecting against infringement becomes increasingly harder in a time when technology purposefully makes it easier for individuals to directly obtain objects, information, and ideas. However, as impossible as it may seem to come to a solution that appeases all parties and covers all bases, regulations will inevitably develop to catch up to the technology due to the high interest that the manufacturing industry has in retaining exclusivity over their patented products. A decade ago, the improper distribution of copyrighted films and music albums using file-sharing software such as Grokster was the bane of the entertainment industry’s existence. While illegal file sharing still exists today, the industry managed to significantly reduce the improper distribution of their copyrighted materials by taking the developers of that software to court and successfully shutting them down. In the process, entertainment corporations were jolted into focusing more on digital products and less on the market for hard copies of albums and films. Similarly, while the development of 3D printing technology may present difficult patent protection issues for manufacturers, it may also present opportunities to capitalize on a new market. As technology grows in unimaginable ways, the industry that has the most at stake will find a method of managing their patent rights.
 See The Ultimate List of What We Can 3D Print in Medicine and Healthcare!, The Medical Futurist, http://medicalfuturist.com/3d-printing-in-medicine-and-healthcare/.
 See P. Andrew Riley & Elizabeth D. Ferrill & Benjamin T. Sirolly, Catch Me If You Can: Auto Parts in the Era of 3D Printing, Law 360 (2014).
 The Medical Futurist, supra note 1.
 See Timothy Holbrook, How 3-D Printing Threatens Our Patent System, Scientific American (Jan. 6, 2016), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-3-d-printing-threatens-our-patent-system1/.
 See id.
 See Sara Angeles, The Best Industrial 3D Printers, https://www.business.com/categories/best-industrial-3d-printers/ (Oct. 31, 2017).
 See Tony Hoffman, The Best 3D Printers of 2017 (Jan. 18, 2017), https://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2470038,00.asp.
 See Tabrez Y. Ebrahim. 3D Printing: Digital Infringement & Digital Regulation, 14 Nw. J. Tech. & Intell. Prop. 37 at 41 (2016).
 See id.
 Holbrook, supra note 4.
 See What is 3D Printing?, https://www.stratasysdirect.com/resources/what-is-3d-printing/ (Oct. 31, 2017).
 Ebrahim, supra note 8.
 See Jeff Leeds, Grokster Calls It Quits on Sharing Music Files, N.Y. Times (Nov. 8, 2005).
 See id.
 See id.
 Riley, supra note 2.
Image Source: https://www.mcgilldaily.com/2014/02/3d-printing-a-disruptive-technology/.