In the past, science fiction books and television shows toyed with the idea of “replicators” and “matter compilers.” The idea was that people would be able to produce the tools or objects they needed in any given situation from the comforts of their own homes or starships. Mere decades after this idea was considered a fantasy it has become a reality as Americans have increasingly begun using 3D printers to create tools and objects they need from the comfort of their own homes. But the advent of 3D printers has not brought about the utopian freedoms things like Star Trek indicated. Instead, 3D printing technology has created entirely new challenges for the US patent system to grapple with.
The creation of an object using 3D printing is known as additive manufacturing. This process involves a 3D printer applying a given material in thin layers on top of each other to create an object dictated to it by a computer-aided design (CAD) file. While this ability was first created in the 1980s, it has exploded in popularity over the past few years due to the advent of “home” 3D printers.
Meanwhile, the United States patent system was created to provide an incentive for “the progress of science and useful arts” by creating limited time monopolies to the creators for their ideas. In exchange for this limited time monopoly, creators file a patent which explained the process for creating their invention or idea so as it could be replicated by one who is skilled in the art.
3D printers can create things as simple as pencil holders to as complicated as working firearms. The result of this is that now conceivably anyone with a 3D printer could be a person “of ordinary skill in the art” to replicate a patent. All a user would need is the relevant CAD file. What’s more, users can design their own CAD files. This offers users an unprecedented ability to violate patents by creating CAD files to replicate existing patents. Unlike in the past where imitating an invention might require specialized equipment which would require large financial investments, there is a minimal financial barrier to using 3D printers to replicate patents. A quick search online shows that some 3D printers can be purchased for less than $200, making them easily attainable by most Americans. And while the barriers to infringement are lowered, enforcement will become extremely difficult. How is a company to know if individuals imitate their patents at home? Or, what if someone shares their imitation CAD with others? Each use of the file is a patent infringement, but patent holders would be clueless as to who, if anybody, was violating their patents. So far, US courts have not dealt with this issue, but it is something to keep an eye on in the future.
Daniel Norton is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. He has worked in Information Technology for the past 7 years and is currently working to increase the accuracy of contract analysis Artificial Intelligence. Upon graduation, he intends to practice Intellectual Property Law.