Patent Could Cripple The 3D Printing Revolution

October 17, 2012 | 20:17
Patent Could Cripple The  3D Printing Revolution
Patent Could Cripple The 3D Printing Revolution
A patent for a DRM system on 3D printers was granted by U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to Intellectual Ventures.

3D printers allow users to print 3D objects from a digital design. Once the technology hits the mainstream it will likely be as disruptive to manufacturing as sharable digital files are to the music, movie and publishing industry. Once technology enabled decentralized, low- or no-cost (re)production, these industries saw their control over their products and the market rapidly evaporate.

It will probably be no different for manufacturers of goods. Instead of buying a coffee mug that was designed in Paris, manufactured in Shenzhen and shipped to your place of residence, 3D printing will allow you to download the design of a mug and have your printer produce it for you.

DRM for 3D printers
If digital file sharing is any indication of how the 3D printing revolution will unfold stakeholders will divide into two camps: there’ll be those who embrace the shift to an economy of abundance and build new businesses on it, like Spotify and Bittorrent. And there’ll be those who’ll try to maintain the scarcity model. Either by litigation, policy making or modifying the technology.

A patent issued by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to Intellectual Ventures on October 9th, squarely falls into the latter category. Patent 8,286,236 is basically a Digital Rights Management technology for 3D printers and other manufacturing methods. DRM restricts the use and distribution of copyrighted content by utilizing techniques like encryption or watermarking.

Intellectual Ventures patented what they call a Manufacturing Control System. For it to work the system has to be built into the printer where it is assigned a policing function. When a digital design or CAD-file is uploaded to the printer, the system checks the file against an online database for authorization codes. If the printer has no authorization to print the file, the system prevents it from executing it.

Intellectual Property and 3D printing
Michael Weinberg is a lawyer and the author of the whitepaper: It Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology, published in 2010.

In his paper Weinberg writes that it is not an unlikely scenario that rightsholders will force 3D printer manufacturers to integrate DRM systems into their devices to protect Intellectual Property. The difficulty is that, since 3D printing is about objects, protecting IP will be less about copyright laws and more about patent laws. And there’s a big difference.

Copyright covers work like novels and movies which are long and complex. If two people separately write a story about an alien invasion, they will certainly be different stories and each person can be granted copyright. But, Weinberg points out, if many people work on the same practical problem more than a few will come up with the same solution. But the patent is only granted to whoever filed for it first.

In the case of people designing stuff a little more complex than coffee mugs and uploading them to the Internet, chances are they unknowingly infringe on one or more patents. Which leads to the next problem.

Over a decade of fighting over copyright infringement has made it clear to rightsholders that it is difficult and not very effective to prosecute individual infringers. They have therefore tried to expand liability to parties who –one way or another- facilitate infringement. Internet Service Providers, search engines, websites with user generated content, all have been in the cross hairs of major content providers.

The biggest danger is, according to Weinberg, that if patent holders are allowed to hold third parties liable for facilitating patent infringement, they can demand penalties. 3D printer manufacturers and websites hosting CAD-files will be put out of business before the 3D printing frenzy even takes off.

For Weinberg’s view on this particular patent go to Technology Review.

Patents patented by a patent troll
There is some irony in Intellectual Ventures being issued the patent to protect patents. The company doesn’t actually make anything. All it does is filing for and buying up patents in order to exact licensing fees from other companies who do invest in research and development. Its business model makes other tech companies see red and has earned it the title ‘biggest patent troll on the planet’. The company is considered by many to represent everything that is wrong with the patent system.

But maybe it’s a good thing. Perhaps manufacturers of goods will refuse to play ball with the hated company and look for other ways to come to terms with the 3D printing revolution.

Source: Technology Review

Photo: Kamer Maker

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