Existing intellectual property laws may not cover 3D printing. Intellectual property rights holders need to know the risks and secure the rights they have, and also need to look at other creative ways to discourage unauthorized 3D printing.

3D printing will test U.S. intellectual property laws, just as software, MP3 players, and the Internet did. People adapted and need to do so again. IP laws are notoriously slow to change, so rights holders should not look to Congress for help anytime soon. It is time to explore other options.

3D Printing Is Changing the Language of Duplication

Today, companies protect product designs with a combination of copyrights, design patents, and trade-dress protection. These designs cover a wide range of products, such as athletic shoes and coffee pots to replacement razors and smartphone accessories. But, many small businesses forgo formally protecting their designs, because their sales volume is too small to entice a copyist to set up a mass-production line.

But with 3D printing, the vulnerability equation for copying will change. The first copy and the millionth have essentially the same manufacturing cost, so smaller manufacturers may find their products copied as never before. Large objects or objects that require many different materials, on the other hand, may be less vulnerable to copying because of size constraints and materials cost. Eventually 3D printing technology, either at the home or industrial scale, will catch up. When that day arrives, many industries may find themselves unable to prevent unauthorized 3D printing using only the traditional IP techniques.

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