Intellectual property rights and 3D printing—much ado about nothing?


Graphic from Intellectual Ventures showing how to prevent 3D printers from downloading digital files not paid for.

3D printing and intellectual property protection or rights is back in the news again, thanks to Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO and now owner of Intellectual Ventures, a company that “believes that ideas are valuable” and therefore works at developing patents.

The latest patent, Manufacturing Control System, has many in the 3D printing community debating what should be free and what should not be free when it comes to printing objects with 3D printers.

Myhrvold is clearly on the side of compensating designers and their designs.

The Maker community is not. If the design data are on the Internet in any way, they are free.

Some professionals in the 3D printing space are not happy with this development either, saying that it will kill innovation.

It might hamper some innovation; then again, it might spur even more innovation especially in the form of hacking. Today’s younger makers will hack into this code in minutes, maybe less.

The patent is interesting. If your 3D printer has the coding installed, then when you load a CAD file into your printer, the printer is supposed to check to see if you’ve been granted the right to make the object. It apparently will also check to see if you can make the part from a specific material, and how many copies you’re allowed to make.

But the most interesting point is that this patent is broadly defined; you can apply it to other digital files, not just those used in 3D printing. You can use for “…extrusion, ejection, stamping, die casting, printing, painting, and tattooing and with materials that include “skin, textiles, edible substances, paper, and silicon printing.” (This quote is from Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at the nonprofit Public Knowledge, who reviewed the patent at the request of Technology Review.) Thus, whole industries can take advantage of it.

However, no equipment manufacturer has to take advantage of this patent if they don’t want to.

I think this patent will become irrelevant. It will be hacked. And there are other ways to protect your intellectual property rights if you really want to.

Leslie Langnau


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