3D Printers Could Be a Threat to Copyright Owners -- or an Opportunity

The DIY technology could be a problem for intellectual property owners because of the ease of copying products or designs. But with some creative licensing deals, the technology could also be a marketing opportunity.

As analysts predict huge growth in the 3-D printing market, some businesses already see the fledgling do-it-yourself technology as a major threat to their intellectual property (IP) because of the ease of copying manufactured products or designs.

In one case last year, HBO sent a cease-and-desist letter to a businessman selling 3-D-printed iPhone docks that copy a throne in the network's Game of Thrones series. With Gartner predicting that worldwide shipments of sub-$100,000 3-D printers grew 49 percent in 2013, more legal wrangling is on the way, some IP lawyers say.

Owners of 3-D printers aren't likely to mass-produce products, but they could make prototypes that run afoul of copyrights, design patents and trademarks. With 3-D printing, "we're somewhat in the Wild West of the fringes of IP law," says Paven Malhotra, a lawyer with Keker and Van Nest. "In the next few years, we're likely to see all kinds of legal issues we didn't think of."

However, concerned businesses have options beyond firing off a cease-and-desist letter or filing a lawsuit. In some cases, it may be more cost-effective for large businesses to ignore the lone 3-D printer user making widgets in his basement, Malhotra says. In other cases, IP owners may want to explore creative licensing deals, says Michael Weinberg, vice president at digital rights group Public Knowledge. He has proposed an open license that copyright owners could offer to 3-D printers, with the copyright owners retaining veto power over printed products.

Allowing fans of a TV program to print characters would create a "huge goodwill benefit," Weinberg says. For some businesses, licensing 3-D printing plans or objects may be a "great marketing opportunity," Malhotra says. "They're going to have people out there excited about their characters or their designs."

With 3D printing, "there's room for somebody who is prepared to work with the creative community...to set up some new, interesting business models," says Roberta Jacobs-Meadway, an IP lawyer with Eckert Seamans. "The question is, is it going to be more of a closed system or more of an open system?"

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