Copyright and 3D Printing: Everything Old is New Again

From “Player Piano rolls to “Betamax”to “Napster, the American Judiciary has hosted a seemingly endless parade of intellectual property disputes over the years all foretelling the end of copyright law as we know it. Petitioners trod out the latest technology, characterizing it as a facilitator of piracy robbing creators of the return on their hard-won investment and inspired contributions that have long fueled the American Economy. And the technologists respond by asserting that they should not be saddled with the burden of patrolling others’ misuse of their well-intended tools developed to improve the daily lives of everyday Americans.

copyright protectionOver the years, there have been victories on both sides, but what is clear is that technology continues to evolve and that content creators continue to zealously defend their right to protect and profit from their creation in any medium.  Both are valid objectives and remain just about the only constants in this very dynamic area of law and business.  For decades, “content” and “conduit” have been engaged in a delicate and yet deeply symbiotic dance.  The popularization of 3D Printing technology will once again bring together creative content developers and innovative technologists, and I posit that their struggles will be the norm and not the exception.

As an intellectual property attorney who has represented paradigm-shifting media and technology clients for over two decades, I look forward to the day when history does not repeat itself — when both creators and technologists can work together to further their respective and mutual objectives long before the lawsuits come pouring in.  “The rightsholders will come around, “ one leading 3D Printing executive proclaimed at a recent industry event.  And yet, HBO has already issued a cease-and-desist demand to stop the dissemination of merchandise based on the popular television program, “Game of Thrones.”[5]   Disney, for example, routinely sues for the unauthorized use of Mickey Mouse and zealously defends its carefully crafted image as manifested in arguably the most famous ambassador of all brands[6].  Why would the company draw the line in protecting its intellectual property at 3D Printing?[7]  A search on a popular 3D blueprint network reveals countless “Harry Potter” references that a court will likely conclude at some point goes well beyond “fair use.”  After all, how is file-sharing of CAD files on a mass scale different from sharing MP3 files that were at issue in Napster?  Do we need to witness another Napster litigation or is there an easier way?  What is best for both the user community that these networks serve AND the rightsholders that have laboured to develop this coveted content that is so prized by the 3D Printing user community going forward?


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