A square deal for 3D printing intellectual property creators

Posted by Vikram Rajan

As the general public becomes more aware of the game-changing capabilities of additive manufacturing (AM), some very creative minds are pushing the envelope and exploring new product designs and new ways of manufacturing old products. Their work is critical, driving AM innovation that unshackles product and part design from the restrictions of traditional manufacturing. This brings AM intellectual property (IP) considerations into the limelight. (Check out “3D opportunity for intellectual property risk” to see how this topic that offers significant opportunities and challenges.)

Beyond innovative product design, AM portends even greater changes. This is because with AM the value of a product rests in the design–the manufacturing can be performed by any business or individual with a 3D printer capable of handling the print job. Transmitting product designs, which boils down to just digital information, to anyone who is interested can be done between potential end users.  This  might dissuade designers from investing time and effort into creating new products. Serious thought should be given to finding a sustainable way forward that is designed to keep both designers and customers incentivized. Without this, it may be difficult to turn AM into a universally adopted manufacturing method, taking it past the realm of rapid prototyping and novelty knick-knacks.

How can designers beat “free”? The same way many music streaming sites did–by providing added convenience that customers are willing to pay for, directly or indirectly. The alternative is to spend heavily (in terms of time and money) to retro-fit traditional business models to address new challenges created by the digital age of manufacturing, with a clear plan for protecting intellectual property (IP).

Here’s the thing: navigating IP law is hard. This is especially true in the AM industry, where no major legal decisions have been made to date to help identify the boundaries within which it is safe to travel. Being the first one through the gauntlet doesn’t sound fun–especially if you end up getting stuck with the legal bills.

There is a silver lining. Many IP battles can be avoided by constructing business models that adapt to the new technology rather than fight it. To try to steer clear of major IP legal troubles, businesses on both side of the IP exchange need to consider the economics of AM up front. This means that looking out for a business’s best interest might require the consideration of the best interests of other players. Although buyers and sellers will have different incentives surrounding the sale of an AM product, there is ample middle ground that should allow for an appropriate licensing agreement designed to reduce legal and operational risks for both parties. Under some circumstances, this might even mean that the IP seller gives the product away for free.

There is no one size fits all solution with AM licensing, though. Each product or class of products needs to be considered separately. To better understand the field of play in which this conversation is taking place, take a look at Deloitte’s 3D Opportunity collection of thought leadership papers from Deloitte University Press.

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