NASA recently funded a 3D food printer project – the prototype version of which is intended to make pizzas. For me, this news is another bold step toward the dream of everyone having a Star Trek-style replicator. After all, although replicators on Star Trek could make just about anything, most of what we saw was people using them to conjure up food items.
But could a food printer infringe / give rise to intellectual property such as patents?
The answer is, of course, more complicated than the question. First the good news for would-be food printers: individual recipes, as in lists of ingredients, are generally safe from having IP issues. Many people have written about the challenges relating to intellectual property protection of recipes. While there have been famous incidents regarding copyright infringement of cookbooks, these generally relate to copying the text or recipe selection, not the substance of the recipe. So, in respect of using traditional recipes (i.e. lists of ingredients), food printers might be relatively IP issue-free. Food recipes often also fail the conventional tests for patent protection – they are often either not novel or they are obvious by legal standards. BUT that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible – there’s even a WikiHow about patenting your recipe in the United States (note – that doesn’t mean much since there’s a WikiHow about literally everything).
On the other hand, LOTS of methods and processes of food production have been patented. Take a look at some of Pizza Hut’s patent filings and holdings, such as this method and system for assembling a pizza. Or look at this McDonald’s-owned patent application for a “method and apparatus for making a sandwich.” So to answer the question posed by the post title, if you’re wondering whether people are going to try to patent the 3D printing of food, the answer is: Yes, they definitely are – they’re already doing it (also see, for example, this granted US patent for a “Rapid prototyping and fabrication method for 3-D food objects“). Could your 3D printed pizza infringe a patent? The pizza itself might not, but you might when you carry out the process of printing it out.