Only a few weeks after I posted that the intellectual property sky isn’t falling due to 3D printers, a report has been released suggesting that exactly the opposite might be true. Gartner, a respected tech research firm, is predicting that by 2018 “3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in IP globally.” According to a research director from the firm, “coupled with shorter product life cycles, provide a fertile ground for intellectual property theft using 3D printers.” The report argues that this extensive IP theft will make it more difficult for businesses to monetize their inventions. One hundred billion is a staggering figure, especially given that the same firm elsewhere predicted that less than 100,000 low cost 3D printers will be sold in 2014, though then doubling year-over-year.
Personally, as I mentioned in my last post, I am not (at this point) particularly worried about the potential for infringement by 3D printers. While the risk is real, in some ways it seems more of a matter for market forces and existing laws to settle – a question of enforcement and incentives. Plus, I still maintain that it is important to weigh such harms against the legal economic activity generated by 3D printers.
What concerns me most is that the low-cost 3D printing space, soon to explode due to the expiration of key patents on SLS technology in 2014 (one expired yesterday), will be stymied by endless demand letters and litigation relating to the roughly 7,000 patents relating to 3D printing technologies that have been filed in the last decade. Innovators seeking to employ 3D printing technology to market new products could find that elements of their processes and products have been patented.
The patent regimes that exist in the developed world give extraordinary monopoly rights to holders of valid patents in exchange for disclosing their inventions. Patent owners can agree to license their technology or they can deny use outright, with generally no recourse for a non-government user of a patented technology. With a technologically democratizing device like a 3D printer, a relatively inexpensive technology that can be created and used by almost anyone, the deluge of patents stands as a daunting potential barricade. Instead of an open frontier, innovators may see a thorny narrow path filled with legal troubles. There are ‘standards-essentials’ patents in some industries, in which standards organizations attempt to create a licensing system for all necessary patents governing a particular technology (including certain smartphone technologies). But nothing like that exists yet for 3D printing – and it also flies in the face of the ‘open’ 3D movement which might detest an attempt to formalize royalty payments. Nevertheless, it is probably time to start the conversation.