1. Are Today’s Patent Laws Sufficient For Tomorrow’s 3D Printing?

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    “It may not be long before 3D printers join telephones, televisions, and computers as standard in-home appliances. Once that happens, consumers will have the ability to print all sorts of objects, and the universe of possibilities continues to expand (pizza, toys, handguns, or more mundane useful articles of the everyday, like replacement parts for a broken dishwasher or auto interior—the likes of which could be far more costly if purchased from manufacturers).”

    For consumers, 3D printing may well be a dream come true: instant access to essentially any product you can imagine. But, as attorney Robert Maier of Baker Botts points out in his excellent piece (available in full below), it’s also a potential nightmare for intellectual property rights holders:

    “The advent of 3D printing, however, leads us down a path towards a decentralization in manufacturing—i.e., a shifting of manufacturing from companies to consumers. That decentralization raises serious questions about the practical ability to enforce patent rights under our current system.”

    Why won’t today’s laws work? Several reasons, according to Maier:

    • Suing individual consumers for infringement is not economically viable:

    “[A] patent holder in some circumstances might be forced to bring hundreds, thousands, or millions of patent infringement lawsuits against the consumers, the ones actually making the infringing product in a 3D-printing world.”

    • Going after “indirect” infringers – those who distribute plans and blueprints – isn’t likely to work:

    “[Patent law] provides that ‘whoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer.’ […]Unfortunately, to prove either contributory infringement or induced infringement, a plaintiff must show actual infringement. Additionally, a plaintiff in an induced infringement case must show that the indirect infringer knew of the patent at issue and had specific intent for the end user to infringe the patent.”

    • Copyrighting blueprints can help, but doesn’t provide enough protection:

    [C]opyright is in some ways less powerful than patent law. For example, patent law protects against reverse engineering and independent creation; copyright law does not. If one were to independently generate a blueprint for an item, there could be no copyright liability for creating that blueprint, even if it can effectively be used to print the same object. Additionally, there could be a fair-use argument—which is not available under patent law—in using the blueprint to make a product.”

    Read Maier’s complete perspective, including his views on how patent lawyers can begin to prepare for the 3D printing revolution. Then go deeper on the legal aspects of 3D printing below:

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