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Introduction and the 3D Printing Technology. (Part I of the 3D Printing Law Series)

In this next series of posts, the Argus Law Blog will present an article written by Daniel Enea, a patent attorney at Argus Intellectual Enterprise, that analyzes the legal and economic issues surrounding 3D printing.


“Man is by nature a social animal” that utilizes tools to improve his quality of life. [1] The first tool discovered dates back to over 3 million years ago. While early hominids’ lacked verbal communication, one could easily imagine them demonstrating their tools to one another, resulting in one of the earliest forms of communication.[2] Although our forms of communication may have changed, our desire to share our creations with others is as pervasive as ever.

The 21st century’s latest tool, the 3D printer, has fascinated everyone from NASA[3] to Jay Leno.[4] 3D printing technology is used in almost every industry. 3D printers are used as a prototyping and manufacturing machine which makes them inexorably linked to patents and patent law. Patent law is the primary mechanism that companies and individuals use to protect their research and development. Patents are big business. Patent procurement, licensing, and litigation costs are enormous. Patent law enables patent owners to prevent others from making, using, and selling their invention. With the rise of 3D printing in small businesses and homes, the ability of patent owners to enforce this right has become and will become more difficult. This difficulty arises from highly technical scientific and legal nature of patents. This only exacerbated by the decentralized manner of the manufacturing made possible by the availability and pervasive spread of design files on the Internet. The uncertain boundaries of the patent right lay siege to the market making mutually beneficial transaction nonexistent.

In this Article, I will explain the causes of these problems, their significance on the law and economics of the industry, and offer a legal solution. In Part I will explain the 3D printing technology and growing appeal. Part II will examine many of the legal issues that arise from 3D printing using a hypothetical example to walk-through the legal analysis. I will then analyze the discouraging economic effects caused by the interaction between 3D printing and current patent law. Part III examines the unique characteristics of the 3D printing industry and its interactions with patent law in an effort to frame the issue. Finally, Part IV will offer a solution inspired by copyright and trademark law’s method of dealing with the Internet Age.

The 3D Printing Technology

Before I examine the legal and economic impact of 3D printing, some background information about the 3D printing industry is necessary to understand the challenges that patent law faces.

3D printing, or three-dimensional printing, is the process of turning digital models into tangible real-world objects. Unlike the traditional 2D ink printers, 3D printers have the ability to “print” vertically to create an object that is solid and in many cases functional. The first 3D printer was invented and patented in the United States by Charles Hull in the mid 1980’s. The “Stereolithography Apparatus”, which it was known as at the time, was designed to be a rapid prototyping machine.[5] However, due to its high costs, the early 3D printers were only accessible to a select few companies thereby limiting its commercial success.

Today, the market for 3D printing has exploded, both in terms of size and selection.

Advances in technology and the availability of material have driven the costs of a 3D printer down considerably making it profitable for companies like Makerbot to focus on the personal 3D printing business.[6] For under $1000, hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers can become engineers and manufacturers. Desktop 3D printers allow individuals to do what was previously reserved for R&D labs of large corporations.

Although there are several methods for printing 3D objects, the basic underlying principles are the same. The process begins with the creation of a computer readable design. This is done using software known as CAD, or computer aided design, and saved in a “.stl” file format. These files operate similarly to a “.doc” or “.pdf” in the sense that they can be edited, saved, and shared with other computers that run compatible software.[7] Within the CAD program, a virtual blueprint is created that the user can “print” with the 3D printer, which is connected to the computer much in the same way a typical ink printer is connected. The manufacturing process itself is very simple. Once the user enters the command to print, the 3D printer begins creating the object based on the instructions from the CAD file. The 3D printer works by building the object from the ground up, incrementally adding layer on top of layer. The “ink” can be a variety of materials, but a typical home printer uses a filament of thermoplastic that is heated and extruded in very small amounts. The extruder or printing shelf is mounted such that it can move in all three dimensions (x, y, z). When the bottom layer is complete, the extruder injects the heated plastic on top of the previous layer, continuing this process until the object is completed. The heated plastic cools, creating a rigid 3D plastic object.[8]

3D printing technology is rapidly evolving. Newer manufacturing techniques that use lasers or electron beams to heat powdered plastic fusing the material are revolutionizing the industry once again. Large industrial printers, costing as much as $1 million, are capable of printing aerospace parts in titanium alloy.[9] The software is improving as well, allowing for more detailed and complicated designs. Perhaps the greatest area of innovation lies in the area where 3D printers and conventional 2D printers diverge, the printing material itself. Not bound by the same physical constraints, the material can include precious metals like silver, ceramic, and even bio-medical material that can be deposited cell by cell to create human organs. Stratasys, one of the leading firms in the industry, announced that it currently has five biocompatible materials approved for human use.[10] All of these enhancements are leading to innovations in other fields and sciences.

The ability to share designs in the public domain via the internet has greatly contributed to 3D printing’s growth. Home consumers can create custom designs using CAD programs or with a 3D scanner. But there are other options to obtain designs.[11] There are websites that contain free, downloadable files ready to print at home. Following in the footsteps of YouTube and other web host sites, user generated content is shared, often freely, to the online public community. Websites like Pirate Bay, Shapeways, and Thingiverse have databases containing thousands of designs ranging from action figures to working hand guns, all uploaded by the public available to the public. Shapeways and Staples offer services that let people who don’t own 3D printers to easily print 3D objects.[12] These services allow the consumer to select designs from websites, or to create their own designs and submit them and have them printed at these printing centers. The service will then ship the objects directly to the consumer or to a local outlet for pickup.[13]

Regardless of the specific techniques, this revolution in individual, decentralized user manufacturing, poses a unique challenge to current IP law that has and will lead to significant inefficiencies and uncertain legal issues. The current legal rules are not adequate to deal with this new technology and are at risk of suffocating an emerging industry. The legal framework is complicated, but it will get even more so if clear legal rules and simple procedures are not adopted. An understanding of the somewhat unique industry characteristics will minimize the risk of slowing progress in an exciting field.


[1] Aristotle, Politics

[2] Philip Lieberman, The Evolution of Human Speech: Its Anatomical and Neural Bases. Current Anthropology Volume 48, Number 1, February 2007

[11] Kelsey B. Wilbanks, The Challenges of 3d Printing to the Repair-Reconstruction Doctrine in Patent Law, 20 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 1147, 1148 (2013).

[12] Kelsey B. Wilbanks, The Challenges of 3d Printing to the Repair-Reconstruction Doctrine in Patent Law, 20 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 1147, 1148 (2013)

[13] Kelsey B. Wilbanks, The Challenges of 3d Printing to the Repair-Reconstruction Doctrine in Patent Law, 20 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 1147, 1148 (2013)


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