Beyond 3-D Printers’ Magic, Possible Legal Wrangling; two law professors warn that the rise of three-dimensional printing could set off lawsuits like those seen over music file-sharing

November 23, 2013

Beyond 3-D Printers’ Magic, Possible Legal Wrangling


When reports first appeared that computers could produce three-dimensional objects — from toys to auto parts to household items — it sounded like a page from a science fiction novel. But the era of 3-D printers is upon us. For a mere $1,299, plus shipping, you can even buy one from Staples to use at home. There’s still a gee-whiz aspect to the technology, but once that fades away, it’s likely to set off something else: lawsuits. That warning comes from two law professors in a paper to appear early next year in The Georgetown Law Journal.The 3-D printing “will do for physical objects what MP3 files did for music,” wrote Deven R. Desai, associate professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and Gerard N. Magliocca, professor at the Robert H. McKinney School of Law at Indiana University.

Using computer modeling software, 3-D printers can reproduce objects using layers of materials like rubber, plastics, ceramics and metals. Some websites share software to build these objects; the attitude of many of the software makers is: “I designed this cool thing, and I want you to be able to print it,” Professor Desai said in an interview.

But just as people copy music files, it seems probable that they will do the same with objects — a tool, say, or a piece of furniture that may be covered by a patent. All patents are available to the public, and it would be possible for a knowledgeable person to pore over a patent file and create software that can reproduce the invention described, Professor Desai said. Also, 3-D scanners can scan some objects and translate them into computer models, to be modified or printed.

So what is a patent owner seeking to stop an infringement to do, given that tracking down people in their homes would be extremely difficult?

One option would be to go after the makers of the printing hardware, but that would be a misguided approach centered on a general-purpose technology with many legal uses, Professor Desai said. Patent holders could also sue the websites that host the software that enables the printers to manufacture the objects, but this, too, could stymie perfectly legal inventions and end up putting a stranglehold on innovation, he said.

Just as record companies were unable to stop music file-sharing, manufacturers will not be able to prevent the proliferation of 3-D printing, he said. While violation of patents is a concern, and there may be ways to sue some individual lawbreakers, the best way to handle this threat, he said, may well be to embrace the new technology and the new markets it opens.

People who use unauthorized music-sharing sites know that the files they download may be poor in quality or corrupt, or even contain viruses; that’s why they are willing to pay for their music on sites like iTunes. Similarly, manufacturers can set themselves up as authorized dealers for 3-D software and material, Professor Desai said, so that “consumers would know they were getting a trusted product.”

A main advantage of 3-D printing is that users can customize items to their personal needs — for example, by adjusting the sizes and shapes of parts. Manufacturers could customize their mass-market products for people using 3-D printers and promote them as having superior quality, Professor Desai said.

Is the government likely to take an aggressive approach toward 3-D printing violations? That’s hard to know, but past efforts by the government to stop illegal taping of movies and television shows, along with illegal downloading of music, have not been very effective, and the same seems likely to be true of 3-D printing, Professor Desai said. The march of technology is just too insistent.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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