Tuesday, February 19, 2013

3-D Printers and Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is a subject that comes up quite a bit when we are talking with students here at IIT, especially in IPRO classes where the students are working with corporate sponsors or are creating or refining a marketable product. In these classes, students often ask questions about how intellectual property law not only fosters but in some cases can hinder creativity and the spread of new innovations. 

This morning NPR had an interesting piece on the radio about copyright and and 3-D printers.  3-D printers have the potential to revolutionize manufacturing, allowing us to easily create everything from toy figurines to guns without ever having to go to a store or order something of the web.  Website such as Thingiverse allow people to share their digital designs for 3-D printing with the public.  The site currently has designs ranging from  pocket fishing poles to jewelry, as well as a number of items that are currently under copyright, such as a bust of Yoda. Recently Moulinart, the company who owns the rights to the cartoon Tintin,  served Thingverse with a Millennium Digital Copyright Act takedown notice, requiring the site to remove printing designs of Tintin's cartoon moon rocket.

Supposing 3-D printing continues on its current course, what kinds of impact might it have on engineering patents, where a customer, rather than having to go to a company to buy certain car parts, for instance, might be able to go to a local shop and print out the part for a fraction of the price? Or, will patents change so that the designs of a certain part will be strictly controlled? Technologies of this kind are likely to have a revolutionary impact on the manufacturing world in the next few decades, posing new challenges to he flow of designs and ideas, and how innovators and companies are compensated for their work.