3D printing and Intellectual Property – why are they a misfit?

By Joren De Wachter

In my previous post at JorenDeWachter.com I explained how 3D printing affects the world of Intellectual Property (IP), and how this creates all kinds of problems for IP rights.

In this blog I will expand a little bit on why that is the case, and whether something can be done about it.


1. Personalized manufacturing

Remember the ringtone industry?

First started as a bit of a joke, and in order to get rid of that ubiquitous Nokia ringtone, it became possible to personalize the sound of the ringtone of your mobile phone. You could now have your personal choice on how the phone rings.

And people loved it.

Within months, a multi-million dollar economic activity was born, and everyone was creating, offering and downloading personalized ringtones.

Now, 3D printing has started to offer the possibility to print personalized shell cases for mobile phones.

Such personalized mobile phone shell cases are probably unlikely to become a similar run away success right now, but that is only due to the limited number of 3D printers that are around (in other words, for purely logistical reasons). Once capacity catches up, there is no reason why people would not personalize the case of their phone, in a similar way as they personalize their ringtone.

Especially if the cost is similarly low, which it will be.

This points to a key characteristic of 3D printing.

3D printing is “personalized manufacturing”.

And “personalized” is the key to understanding how 3D printing will affect and transform our society, and why Intellectual Property does not fit well with 3D printing.

2. Value of personalized

All major recent developments in consumer software and the Internet are based on the concept of “personalized”.

Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, Google maps, Twitter, pretty much most of the App phenomenon, all those new developments and businesses are based on the concept of “personalized”.

Your personalized network, your personalized map, your personalized photos, your personalized life online.

And now the physical world will join in. Products will become personalized.

Your personalized shoes. Your personalized sunglasses. Your personalized teacup.

Everything will become personalized – because we all want the same thing: to be unique.

And we will be able to show how unique we are. The possibilities are endless.

This is a profound change. Since the start of the industrial revolution, we have moved away from personalized products (slowly and expensively made by craftsmen until then), to replace them by mass-produced, standardized products.

While no-one really likes standardized products, we all buy them, mainly because they are too cheap not to.

But 3D printing has a profound impact on that model. No longer will we have to settle for the designs imposed upon us by corporate designers employed by standardized manufacturers. We will be able to design ourselves, or buy, at a fraction of the price, the personalized designs made available online.

In other words, we will leave the manufacturing processes of the Industrial Revolution behind us, we will move beyond the industrial way, and return to the personal way; but this time available to all, at the same, or even lower, prices as the standardized product.

3. And Intellectual Property?

A key characteristic of the Intellectual Property system, as it currently exists, is that it is very closely linked to the manufacturing processes of the Industrial Revolution.

A patent (the right to exclude others to manufacture or distribute a product or use a production process) only makes sense if you make the same product over and over again, in the same or similar way.

In a world where manufacturing becomes personalized, patents effectively become completely useless – because patents need standardized manufacturing in order to have any meaning (let alone value).

The same is true for other IP rights. What could possibly be the point of registering a design, if it takes any person on their PC with some basic training an hour or so to modify it enough to steer clear of possible infringement, and then they can manufacture that design in their own home? The return on investment in filing a design becomes pretty horrendous.

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.

Those are simply not true anymore. But copyright is also particularly badly designed (pun intended) for personalized manufacturing based on digital files.

Copyright, in theory, applies to the design itself (to the extent it is not merged to the function), and to the digital file carrying the information necessary to print the product. But copyright does not apply to the function of the print, or the function of what is being printed.

And again, how can you possibly enforce copyright in a standardized product, when the value of 3D printing is in the personalization – i.e. that bit which would fall outside copyright protection in the first place?

I think it is a key aspect that is not well understood by IP professionals. 3D printing will personalize manufacturing.

And personalized things fall outside IP, because IP is based on principles of standardized manufacturing/copying.

After all, when was the last time you heard about the estate of Jimi Hendrix sue someone because they have as a ringtone the intro to “Hey Joe”? In theory, every ringtone is a breach of copyright.

But copyright can’t handle personalized things – so, for ring tones, it has become irrelevant.

Is that the way forward for all IP?

[This post originally appeared at jorendewachter.com.]

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