3D Printing and Intellectual Property Law: Predictions for 2015

March 18, 2015

The year 2014 loved 3D printing. From prophecies of its role in creating a brave new world, to the stock market’s enchantment with earnings’ possibilities, 3D printing technologies dominated many technology conversations. Now, however, it may seem like 3D printing has hit its sophomore slump. Widespread consumer adoption has yet to occur and stock prices have cooled significantly from 2014 highs.

Don’t get distracted by these events. 3D printing’s importance as a disruptive force will continue throughout 2015 and beyond. And, it has become clearer that some of 3D printing’s most important transformations will come through synergistic combination with other emerging technologies. As always, changes in intellectual property (“IP”) laws will both shape and influence the specifics of just how far the disruption goes.

3D printing and IP in 2015

Whatever the state of consumer adoption, manufacturers from around the world have embraced 3D printing. The technology enjoys widespread use in large part to its cost-effectiveness. Now, for many, the technology has become an essential part of the manufacturing process. Moving forward, the depth of 3D printing’s true value will depend upon coordination with other forces—and the ability of all those technologies to withstand the ever-changing winds of IP law.

1. 3D printing will help shape a new manufacturing supply chain

By working in concert with other forces, some analysts predict 3D printing will soon dramatically change the way manufacturing processes occur. Specifically, these predictions say 3D printing will combine with also-evolving robotics and open-source software capabilities to create a new manufacturing supply chain. The contemplated supply system will refocus production locally, significantly impacting those industries that depend on the current global supply chain.

2. Low-cost manufacturing options will lead to increased litigation costs.

In general, patent litigation has become more unpredictable and increasingly expensive. Litigation costs will likely continue to rise as more low-cost supply chains enter the mix, both at home and abroad. We are already seeing instances of this as U.S. district courts consider at least one case involving a lower-cost consumer printer sourced from a Chinese manufacturer.

3. Case law will require assessment of new avenues for software IP protection.

Since last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alice Corp v. CLS Bank International, some say that just what patent protections remain for software-based inventions has become an increasingly difficult question to answer. Because software drives many 3D printing innovations, those who create proprietary software-based advancements within the technology must get smart about the types of protection they choose.

Generally, patents remain one of the strongest options within the intellectual property sphere. Pursing a software patent in a post-Alice world, however, may prove too costly and unpredictable. As a result, 3D printing stakeholders looking to gain IP protections while managing financial resources may choose instead to pursue other IP strategies for software-based innovations. Currently, trade secret law provides one of the most viable options.

Trade secret law offers a variety of protection, including protections for processes and methods, as well as protection against misappropriation. Damages for trade secret misappropriation also do not have to meet the same exacting requirement demanded in patent law—or receive the same scrutiny patent awards now always seem to garner. But trade secret law does not offer certain protections that come standard with a patent like, for example, protection against reverse engineering. Trade secret law also requires the holder to have a stronger tolerance for risk.

A large number of 3D printer innovators may move forward with pursuing trade secret protection this year, especially for software advancements. In doing so, they must remain aware of the limitations and increased risks inherent in this form of IP.

4. Consumer use of 3D printing will increase copyright challenges.

Though use has not grown at the predicted rate, consumer acceptance of 3D printing technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. You can see this easily by turning to Kickstarter, the crowdsourcing platform. It currently has more than 240 3D printing projects on its site. Nearly 20 of those projects received at least $250,000 in consumer support. And according to Gartner, a leading IT research and advisory company, mainstream consumer adoption of 3D printing technology is still five-to-ten years out. As consumers begin printing 3D printed items at home, concerns over copyright infringement will grow. Everyone in the 3D printing community will need to pay close attention to what technologies consumers are adopting and what they are doing with those technologies. Rights holders will then need to make smart choices about which elements of their copyrights they want to enforce, and manufacturers will

need to pay close attention to how any of those early conflicts play out. Any copyright infringement action may prove costly for all involved—both in terms of time and money.


The recent changes and the ever-evolving nature of IP law make it harder to choose which 3D printing rights to protect and how. They also make it financially difficult to know which protection to claim and pursue in infringement actions. Stakeholders will need to continue to pay close attention to IP case law as it develops and closely follow events trending on the horizon in order to fully understand and participate in the profitability 3D printings promises.

Reprinted with permission. The original article appears at http://www.inside3dp.com/.

The articles on our website include some of the publications and papers authored by our attorneys, both before and after they joined our firm. The content of these articles should not be taken as legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or official position of Robins Kaplan LLP.

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