The Economist, in an editorial called ‘Print Me a Stradivarius’, recently questioned how 3- dimensional printing will affect IP. My reaction was a simple: Say What! Digital printing, it turns out, has little to do with ‘printing’ as we understand it. Rather it is a method of manufacturing products by using a computer and a printer-type thing called a fabricator (no this newsletter wasn’t created by one!). The Economist explains it rather well: ‘‘First you call up a blueprint on your computer screen and tinker with its shape and colour where necessary. Then you press print. A machine nearby whirrs into life and builds up the object gradually, either by depositing material from a nozzle, or by selectively solidifying a thin layer of plastic or metal dust using tiny drops of glue or a tightly focussed beam. Products are then built up progressively adding material, one layer at a time: hence the technology’s other name, additive manufacturing.’

At the moment these ‘printers’ can only handle plastics, resins and metals, but, says a BBC  report, it’s only a matter of time before they will be able to create other stuff, like body parts. The socio-economic implications could be huge says The Economist: factories could become redundant, unemployment could grow, and the whole urbanisation thing could be reversed.

This technology will also have a huge impact on IP says the editorial. It will, we’re told, prove a boon to inventors, who will be able to make prototypes very easily – design it on your computer and send to ‘print’. In the same way that computer geeks collaborate on open source software, engineers are apparently starting to collaborate on open source product designs.   The bad guys will, of course be licking their lips too, with copying becoming so much easier - in the same way that high speed tape recorders made audio piracy so popular in the 1980’s (and in fact led to a UK case where a court was asked to find that the manufacturers of such machines were contributing to copyright infringement), there will no doubt be calls for restrictions on 3-D printers.  The IP rights most likely to be affected are patents and registered designs, although these machines will obviously also be able to produce ‘counterfeits’ as understood in trade mark law.

‘The lawyers are, no doubt, rubbing their hands’ ends the editorial. This one was. Well, at least until he read an article in Time that predicted that the era of artificial intelligence is not far off.  Which is when computers are more intelligent than we are, and humans merge with computers to form cyborgs.  And just how will that affect IP? You’ll need a computer to work that one out!

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