As 3D printers become commonplace, there is genuine excitement about the new opportunities they will create. By lowering the costs of manufacturing, 3D printing will no doubt unleash a new generation of innovators.
When people can conceptualize, design and print products on their own, who knows what creative products they can come up with?However, 3D printing also presents a significant threat to intellectual property. When people can print almost anything, there is little to stop them to printing patented products. This fact has caused some people to speculate that 3D printing could spell an end to intellectual property. But, are such fears warranted? Will intellectual property become obsolete due to 3D printers?
Well, perhaps the word “obsolete” is a little extreme. However, there is no doubt that 3D printing will pose serious threats to certain kinds of intellectual property. The biggest targets will be copyrights. Certain products like action figures, dolls and toys are typically protected by copyrights.
Unfortunately, there is virtually no way of protecting such products against 3D printers. People will be able to print them at home, and identifying the duplicates will be virtually impossible. As 3D printers become more sophisticated, and materials become more commonplace, there is very little copyright owners can do.
Patents will also face serious threats from 3D printers. Sophisticated products like electronics and vehicle spare-parts are typically protected by patents. However, smart geeks have been known to reverse-engineer even the most sophisticated gadgets. With the popularity of Computer Aided Design (CAD), people will be able to store their designs, and share them on a peer-to-peer basis.
For the holders of the patents, this will present a serious challenge. When possibly thousands of people are able to produce a product from within the comfort of their homes, the product loses its value. Also, tracing the source of the initial breach will be extremely difficult. Taking legal action against thousands of people will be impractical.
Trademarks will also likely suffer. Today, trademarks already face serious threats from forgers. Counterfeit products already range from designer clothes to automotive spare parts. When 3D printing makes creating duplicates much cheaper, there is no doubt that there will be an explosion of forgeries. Since serious brands tend to be costly, the forgers could easily sell their copies cheaply and drive the trademark holder out of business.
Basically, intellectual property as we currently know it will suffer greatly from 3D printing. Copyrights, patents and trademarks will take a big hit from 3D printers. Those who do not adapt will no doubt become obsolete.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom for holders of intellectual property. For starters, 3D printing will not benefit counterfeiters alone. It will lower production costs for everyone. It will also make it possible to decentralize production. As such, rather than having a centralized factory, it will be cost-effective to have mini-plants scattered around the world. These will be able to supply saturate the market quickly and cheaply. As such, infringement on intellectual property will be less profitable.
Secondly, 3D printers could spawn the emergence of new business models. For instance, it could make franchising possible even for electronic products and automotive parts. This could ultimately open new opportunities for growth, expansion and profitability. The fact that almost anyone can make a hamburger or fried chicken hasn’t put McDonalds and KFC out of business.
Finally, we may have to redefine intellectual property. The legal concept of owning ideas was meant to encourage innovation by protecting the inventor’s ability to earn money with them for a period of time. However, history has numerous examples of intellectual property rights being used to stifle innovation and the progress of technology. Established manufacturers have used the threat of litigation to quash otherwise brilliant and revolutionary ideas. The manufacturers themselves have grown richer off it while everybody else has missed out.
3D printing will certainly reverse this trend. If someone can reverse-engineer a gadget and make it better, then there is no use suppressing them. In fact, with 3D printers, attempting to suppress such people will be futile. History has proven again and again that the suppression of information is a difficult endeavor, especially in the internet age. Lawyers will have to redefine the meaning of intellectual property. After all, legislation isn’t supposed to be static.
So, will intellectual property become obsolete due to 3D printers? Probably. There is no doubt that 3D printers will shatter our current definition of intellectual property. The holders of intellectual property who fail to adapt will certainly become obsolete. However, those who adapt will enjoy a whole new era of growth, prosperity, and profitability. After all, the digital revolution may have caused a few record and movie stores to close, but it led to the emergence of iTunes and Netflix.