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Are you ready for 3D printing?

IP owners need to rethink the way that they exploit and enforce their IP rights if they want to meet the challenges of a technology that could revolutionise manufacturing

For now, 3D printers are the stuff of garage hobbyists and corporate R&D labs. But industry analysts say they could transform the way that products are made and distributed, just as the internet shook up the entertainment and music industries.

"Three-dimensional printing is something that's both nothing new and completely new", says Gareth Stokes, a lawyer with DLA Piper. "It has always been possible to take a real world object and make a copy, for example by simply casting a mould. But what 3D printing does is make that process massively easier and cheaper."

Wider access to this ability to copy, both in industry and the home, will be the source of new issues for IP owners, he says.

This month's edition of Managing IP takes an in-depth look at the legal challenges and business opportunities that 3D printing presents. It outlines the IP rights that businesses can use to protect their products from unauthorised copying and provides a five-step guide to planning an effective strategy.

These include strengthening your IP armoury to maximise protection against would-be infringers. One tactic is for rights owners to embed their trade marks into the surface of products susceptible to unauthorised copying. Although it would not enable IP owners to prevent rivals from creating reverse-engineered parts that lacked the trade mark, it would give them greater legal ammunition against anyone selling exact duplicates of their products.

IP owners should also rethink their business models. One way to do this is to look for innovative ways to make the 3D files that allow their products to be printed and use them to generate revenue. Manufacturers should consider coming together to create a parts store, similar to the iTunes model, which allows consumers an easy way to search for and print out spare parts for a small fee. For manufacturers, this means they still have an income stream from spares with no costs of manufacture, transportation or storage.

You can read more in the November issue of Managing IP. If you are not a subscriber, you can access the contents by taking out a free trial.

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