3D Printing and Scanning: The IP Sky Isn’t Falling

First – an apology for the lack of updates. You can guess what my new year’s resolution is going to be.

When we started this blog, we thought it would be interesting to look at some of the IP and other legal implications of 3d printing, scanning and related technologies – not because the sky was falling, but because new technology almost always raises new legal questions. By now, many have keyed in on the numerous ways that 3D production technologies may create legal challenges. As noted recently by Bryan Vogel at Bloomberg Law, 3D printing and scanning create many opportunities for infringement of IP and just as many problems for enforcement of IP rights.

But, I think it is important to consider the opposite perspective – namely IP value creation by 3D printers. I suspect that regardless of infringement and enforcement issues, the result of widespread low cost 3D printing and scanning technology will be a net positive. Further, I think this has been true in the long run almost every time a new technology has made it easier to copy and create subject matter that is covered by intellectual property protections.

Many would point to digital piracy of content and argue the opposite. Speaking about the implications of 3D printing, Joren De Wachter at IPStrategy.com recently argued that copyright is a “misfit” for the digital age.

Copyright, as I have stated many times, is a complete misfit for the digital age. It is based on assumptions that were true in the 19th century, such as high cost of copying, control of distribution chain etc.

Similarly, De Wachter says that 3D printing may also be a misfit since “…personalized things fall outside IP, because IP is based on principles of standardized manufacturing/copying.” I respectfully disagree. Far from a misfit, digital technology has allowed copyright owners to capture value from works in ways that were never before possible. As just one example, consider the collection of royalties for the performance of recorded music: On November 15, 2013, SOCAN, the Canadian copyright collective which administers performance rights for Canadian musicians, paid out royalties to members for performance of their works on the internet from sites like Rdio and YouTube. A massive amount of data analysis is required to achieve this sort of royalty payment to musicians, and it is only possible because of the digital age. While digital technologies caused a painful dip in record sales while record companies awkwardly re-calibrated their business models, embracing the digital age has allowed global recorded music sales to increase for the first time since 1999 in 2012.

The point is, the idea that low cost 3D printers and scanners are somehow bad or at odds with IP rights is simply wrong. In the same way that the printing press, the cassette tape, the digital camera, and any number of other technologies can infringe IP rights, they can also create incredible opportunities for individuals and companies to create new, exciting, original and valuable IP. That’s only a bad thing for those clinging to the past.

EDIT: And just to bring things full circle – music is now being 3D printed and sold. Digital files are allowing the creation and sale of analog vinyl records with 3D printers… the mind boggles.

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