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Friday Jul 15, 2016

Intellectual Property and the Challenge of 3D Printing

Guest blog by Chief Policy Officer and Director for International Affairs Shira Perlmutter

3D printing—also known as stereolithography or additive manufacturing—is a printing technology that uses computer-controlled lasers to build three-dimensional structures from liquid polymers and other materials. Once the domain of fantasy, 3D printing was brought to life in the 1980s, most notably by National Inventors Hall of Fame inventor Chuck Hull, and since then has grown to be a truly paradigm-shifting technology, with uses in a wide variety of industries, from bioengineered cardiac tissue to pollution mitigation devices to custom-manufactured machine tools.

 But as with many new technologies, 3D printing raises complex issues—including in the realm of intellectual property rights such as patents, designs, trademarks, and copyrights. On June 28, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) hosted a conference at its headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, to address the legal issues and policy challenges faced by the owners of intellectual property by the expanding 3D printing industry.

The USPTO is well aware of the growth of the 3D printing industry: in 2015, there were 23 times more patent applications filed for 3D printing technologies than in 2010. Similar growth was seen on the trademarks side, with filings having grown by more than 300 percent over the same period. And since the beginning of 2016 alone, there have been 425 new trademark applications filed for 3D printing-related goods and services.

At the all-day gathering, the 400-plus attendees heard from keynote speakers—including USPTO Deputy Director Russ Slifer, and author and attorney John Hornick—on the basic concepts of 3D printing and the legal challenges it presents. They then had the opportunity to hear from (and pose questions to) four panels of authorities who focused on the issues raised by 3D printing in the areas of innovation, industrial design, trademark law, and copyright. Participants discussed how the explosion of 3D printing technologies may eventually place intellectual property rights at a greater risk of infringement from a widening base of infringers. Improvements in additive manufacturing technologies suggest that, in the not-too-distant future, copies of protected products may be easier than ever for anyone to make.

The best way to respond to rapid technological change is to collaborate—not just with colleagues, but with those working across disciplines. That was exactly the case for the attendees at the USPTO’s conference, who represented law firms, small businesses, patent examiners, and representatives of other federal government agencies. The event was also streamed live to attendees at its four regional offices. It was a gathering designed to encourage collaborative thought and action.

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