IP and open-source
Photo courtesy of Dr John Bullas and DEFCAD
Open-source sharing of information can be a business’s best friend or it can be its worst enemy.
It leads to greater innovation through collaboration and can bring businesses solutions they would never have thought up on their own. But it can also lead to lost profits as customers turn away from purchased products to their open-source, and free, equivalents.
If 3D printing continues to grow in the future, this dichotomy will encompass more and more sectors. Firms will have to choose whether to attempt to fight and defend their intellectual property (IP)* rights in the courts or whether to attempt to innovate and stay ahead of the copycat game.
Currently the elephant in the room with 3D printing and IP rights is that printing at home for non-commercial use is not an IP infringement, says David Knight, partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse. This is true in the UK and, broadly speaking, the rest of Europe where IP laws are similar, although open to different interpretations in different jurisdictions, he adds.
“Suppose you’ve got a patented product and the design file was distributed widely leading to 100 or 200,000 people making it at home for themselves, you can see how a coach and horses can be driven through the law,” he says.
This means that it is further up the chain – determining where the 3D file came from – that will be the most interesting source of new disputes and laws in the future, he adds.
Although the copying of the file is clear copyright infringement, further posting and distribution is a more grey area. It is similar to the arguments seen around music 15 years ago. Record labels attempted to fight all downloading of music off the internet, found they couldn’t win and adapted, says Knight.
“3D printing is slightly wild-west at the moment. As it takes off, it’ll become more mainstream and we’ll see lots of parallels to music and movies,” he adds. “Issues will arise with intermediaries and facilitating the infringement of copyright works, then things will swing the other way with draconian crackdowns before settling down somewhere in the middle.”
But the future could get even wilder as 3D scanning technology improves, says Professor John Bryson, professor in enterprise and competitiveness at the University of Birmingham. “Consumers of the future will know how to use this technology and there will be difficulties policing that.”
Many firms may give up on protecting IP completely, especially given increased global connectivity and the difficulties that would arise in pursuing violators in countries with different IP protections, he adds.
“This is not necessarily a bad thing. You see some firms in the UK already planning for this. They’re relatively protected from competition through innovation,” Bryson says. “They argue that they need three or four new innovations each year and they can stay ahead. By the time someone’s figured out how to copy their product they’d be onto making money from the next thing.”
But not all firms have taken such a hands-off approach to the open-source sharing of information. Some see it as a real threat to future viability, says Ronen Kadushin, a designer and consultant in design and design education.
“This is why the project to make an open-source gun scares them,” he says. “It’s not because a gun is dangerous. In the USA you can go into K-Mart and buy a gun. Why on earth would you need to 3D print one?
“It’s because open-source sharing is a threat to sales. The real revolution would be when everyone can make a self-replicating 3D printer from open-source hardware pieces. This would mean you’re not tied to a supplier.”
This article forms part two of a two-part look at 3D printing and intellectual property rights across the world. The first part looks at the United States.
PathfinderBuzz has also examined the business opportunities 3D printing presents currently, what it might be able to offer business in the future and how it might change East-West relations and global trade.
Next steps and more information
1. Clone Wars
* Intellectual property rights are broadly divided between copyright, patent and trademark.
Copyright refers to a form of protection for creative work. It is often associated with music, drama or art but can also be applied to objects. There must be some element of unique creativity in the design process.
In Europe, copyright law is meant to be broadly similar across EU countries. However, there are still wide differences in interpretation. For example, in Spain it has been ruled legal to download music for private, noncommercial use.
A patent is a limited duration right for an invention. It lists a specific set of points that make it unique.
Patent law has largely been harmonised across Europe. However, some key differences remain between American and European patent law.
Photo courtesy of Inhabitat