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Protecting IP in a 3D printed future

3D printing might just change everything. At least John Hornick, who leads Finnegan’s 3D printing working group and wrote 3D Printing Will Rock the World, certainly thinks so. Introduced by Bracewell Giuliani’s Erin Hennessy, Hornick spoke to INTA registrants yesterday morning about the dramatic consequences he believes the proliferation of 3D printing could have for intellectual property.

“My prediction is that IP laws are actually going to get weaker and narrower over time, not stronger,” cautioned Hornick. He explained that 3D printing’s alarmingly fast march toward ubiquity has great potential to disrupt traditional business models, and therefore the value of intellectual property, as customization becomes commonplace. Hornick pointed to the changes in the music industry due to streaming as an example of this phenomenon.

Hornick believes that “3D printing has the ability to take us back to being makers not buyers.” This possibility is worrisome to brand owners, and stands to disrupt ­traditional business models. Companies such as Boeing—which also registered a patent for a 3D printer that uses multiple printers to print an object while it levitates at their center—are already using 3D printing to print every part of a product, which poses a threat to the existence of parts manufacturers. This is an example of 3D printing “within control,” which can be more easily regulated, and the products of which can be more easily protected by IP rights, says Hornick.

The real risk for IP owners is that people who were once consumers will become producers “away from control,” printing products at home, where brand owners have no chance of catching infringements. The best protection for brands will be customization itself, as even designs protected by trademarks and patents can be copied relatively easily. Even trademarks themselves will be easy to copy, print and affix to generic copycat designs.

“The principles of intellectual property apply to 3D printing just like they do to anything else,” Hornick says, “but the number of potential targets and the scale of potential infringement is much larger because companies and individuals will be able to make anything they want away from control.” He cited a prediction made by the Gartner Consultancy Group that by 2018, companies will lose $100 billion worth of intellectual property due to 3D printing, but said that the danger to intellectual property will depend on how much 3D printing grows proportionally “away from control,” compared to within the space of democratized manufacturing, which can be more easily monitored.

Hornick speculated that brand owners will react in five different ways: “Lawyer up, increased litigation, try to license the technology, demand legislation, or lock it up.” But before 3D printing can become a truly serious threat to intellectual property, it has to be completely outside of control, “and we’re n

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