United States: The Promise And Pitfalls Of 3D Printing

3D printing offers great promise for innovation and manufacturing, but this tool has expanded the scope of patented products that can be easily and cheaply copied, and may make it harder to identify and prosecute infringers. The USPTO held a conference on legal and policy issues surrounding 3D printing on June 28, 2016. Oyvind Dahle, a summer associate at Foley & Lardner LLP, attended the conference and contributed to this article highlighting some of the points that were discussed.

Intellectual Property Surrounding 3D Printing

According to Russell Slifer, Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO, patent filings relating to 3D printing have increased 23-fold over the last five years, and trademark filings for businesses involved in 3D printing have increased 300% over the same time period. While there is great interest and excitement surrounding the promise of 3D printing, there also is concern about how 3D printing could make it easy to copy a patented product with just a push of a button.

The Basics Of 3D Printing

3D printing allows a person to produce a three-dimensional object using a wide variety of materials. 3D printing generally involves these steps:

  1. The object design is encoded in a computer-aided design (CAD) file generated by drawing or scanning the object in three dimensions.
  2. The CAD file is converted into a STL file that describes the 3D surface of the object.
  3. 3D printing software "slices" the surface into printable layers and transfers instructions on how to print each layer to the 3D printer.
  4. The 3D printer prints out the object.

To date, 3D printing has been used to make toys, car parts, medical devices and even human organs. In addition to being useful for making consumer-ready products, 3D printing can be used to make prototypes during product development.

Medical Uses Of 3D Printing

The doctors on Grey’s Anatomy have been using 3D printing for several seasons now, but 3D printing also is being used in real medical situations. As reported by Shafiee and Atala in “Printing Technologies for Medical Applications,” Trends in Molecular Medicine 22: 254-265 (2016), surgeons are using 3D printing to make models of human organs to practice and optimize medical operations. 3D-printed human organs also have been used for drug testing.

In August 2015, the FDA approved the first 3D-printed drug, Apricia’s rapidly-dissolving SPRITAM® (levetiracetam) product for treating epilepsy. In “A New Chapter in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing: 3D-printed Drug Products,” Advanced Drug Delivery Review (available on-line March 18, 2016), James Norman provides an overview of current and potential uses of 3D printing in pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Promises Of 3D Printing

3D printing offers the possibility of making customized products on a cost-effective basis. At the USPTO conference, John Cheek, Deputy Chief IP Counsel of Caterpillar Inc., highlighted the advantages of 3D printing for the automobile industry, which has used 3D printing technology since the 1980s. He noted that using 3D printing to make automotive parts can offer advantages including reduced costs, reduced weight, and increased quality. 3D printing also permits companies to make products (or parts) on demand. Indeed, instead of making parts themselves, companies can send customers (or retailers) a CAD file to use in their own 3D printers.

Pitfalls Of 3D Printing

The features that make 3D printing advantageous for manufacturers also make it easier for competitors to produce high quality copies of patented objects. All a would-be infringer needs is a CAD file for the object and access to a 3D printer. CAD files for all kinds of objects are available over the internet. If a CAD file is not readily available, a 3D scanner can be used to generate a CAD file for the object. The availability of 3D printers also is rapidly expanding, and a number of companies offer 3D printing services. These advances in 3D printing make it easier to copy patented objects.

The availability of 3D printing also makes it more challenging to enforce patent rights. At the USPTO conference, Professors Tim Holbrook and Lucas Osborn discussed the problems of enforcing patents on products that can be easily 3D printed, and referred to their recent article, “Digital Patent Infringement in an Era of 3D Printing,” 48 U.C.D.L. Rev. 1319 (2015). They noted that because CAD files are not considered component parts of an invention, providing CAD files is not considered contributory infringement. They explained that while sharing CAD files might be considered inducing infringement, liability for induced infringement requires (i) an act of direct infringement, (ii) specific intent to induce infringement, and (iii) an affirmative act by the inducer.

As to the first requirement, it may be difficult or impossible to identify direct infringers in the 3D printing context, because a direct infringer may anonymously download the CAD file over the internet and print the object at home. As to the second requirement, it may be difficult to prove specific intent to induce infringement, since the company selling the CAD file may not know the object is patented.

Patent holders concerned with these issues may not take much comfort if they look to the experiences of the music industry, which struggles to protect copyrights in the age of digital downloads.

Implications For Patent Protection

Inventors protecting objects susceptible to 3D printing may try to obtain patents that encompass CAD files and 3D printing methods. However, obtaining and enforcing such claims can be difficult in light of current jurisprudence surrounding patenting abstract ideas and software under Alice and Bilski. Indeed, protecting inventions against copying by 3D printing is a challenge under a patent system focused on tangible things, and highlights the tension between an economy that values intangible innovation and a patent system that excludes such innovation from protection.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.