–Susan Perera, Attorney

The tech industry has opined on the conflict between 3D printing and intellectual property for a few years, and the debate may be heating up.

3D printers allow a user to create and “print” a 3-dimensional object through the use of a digital file and a “printer” that dispenses material in successive layers to create a specific shape.  In the past few years there has been a significant amount of growth in the field of 3D printers, which are now reasonably affordable for personal purchase and use.  For example, MakerBot sells a 3D printer for under $2,000 that can extrude plastic into just about any shape imaginable.

Want to see how it works?  There are multiple videos on YouTube and I can think of at least a few people who would find this mini-manufacturing machine to be an addictively interesting gift.  But what about the IP concerns?

As discussed by Steve Wildstrom last week at Tech.pinions, this method of copying could usher in intellectual property concerns.  Just as video recording did for film, or the copying concern over digital music files, 3D printers may open the door to the infringement of the  intellectual property rights of others.

In additional to possible copyright claims, 3D printers could infringe the protected functionality or design of a product by allowing an individual to make an item that is protected by a utility or design patent.  Websites allowing parties to share digital files for use with 3D printers could also be subject to a claim of indirect infringement for providing the digital files that allow others to make the infringing product.  Further, trademark infringement concerns could also be implicated as 3d printers may allow users to copy the visual impression of a product that could be protected by trade dress or a product configuration trademark.

So what are people making with these 3D printers? Everything from spare parts, to toys, to iPhone cases.  See Dylan Love’s article at Business Insider, for some other examples of what can be made.  As 3D printers become more affordable and consumer use increases, it is quite possible that the IP issues surrounding these little machines will come to the forefront.

Just yesterday, Mike Masnick at TechDirt had an interesting post about the release of a printing kit that allows users to create universal adapter bricks for toy construction kits (basically allowing multiple brands of building toys to now be used together, including K’Nex, Lincoln Logs, Lego’s, and TinkerToys, to name a few) and the IP issues that may be involved.

Based on this, I’ll be keeping an eye out for other developments in the 3D printing field.