Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things
Citation: 102 Geo L.J. 1691 (2014)
Digitization has reached things. This shift promises to alter the business and legal landscape for a range of industries. Digitization has already disrupted copyright-based industries and laws. As cost barriers fell, individuals engaged with copyrighted work as never before. Business-to-business and business-to- consumer models of industrial copyright faltered and, in some cases, failed. Industries were forced to reorganize, and the foundations of copyright were reexamined. This Article assesses a prime example of the next phase of digitization: 3D printing and its implications for intellectual property law and practice.
3D printing is a general-purpose technology that will do for physical objects what MP3 files did for music. The core patent bargain—sharing how to make something in exchange for exclusivity—may be meaningless in a world of digitized things. While 3D printers will unleash the creativity of producers and reduce costs for consumers, they will also make it far easier to infringe patents, copyrights, and trade dress. This will compel firms to rethink their business practices and courts to reconsider not only patent law but also long-established doctrine in areas ranging from copyright merger to trademark post-sale confusion. Moreover, Congress will need to consider establishing some sort of infringement exemption for 3D printing in the home and expanding the notice-and-takedown rules of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to websites that host software enabling 3D printing of patented items and distinctive trade dress. While a 3D printer is not yet a common household item, the time to start thinking about that future is now.