4 Ways to Protect Your Company from the Legal Risks of 3D Printing

“Technology brings with it a host of new legal questions surrounding intellectual property, product liability, regulatory (such as FDA), and other practice areas,” Maya Eckstein, head of Hunton & Williams LLP’s Intellectual Property practice group, told Industry Week.

Here are 4 things you can do to help protect your organization from the legal risks of 3D printing.

“3D CAD files of common products are already appearing on forums, allowing consumers to print things at home themselves, resulting in lost sales for manufacturers.”

1. Patent and guard CAD files. John Cheek, Deputy Chief IP Counsel of Caterpillar Inc., said at a 3D printing conference in late-April in Cleveland, Ohio, that companies need to patent “more than they do now” and to patent 3D parts and model files, according to 3DPrint.com.

3D prints can be made from CAD (computer aided design) files which can easily be shared over the internet. 3D CAD files of common products are already appearing on forums, allowing consumers to print things at home themselves, resulting in lost sales for manufacturers.

Timothy Holbrook of Emory University told Phy.org that the patent system is “ill-equipped” to deal with this situation. Holbrook said that companies should focus on CAD files and guard them tightly. “The CAD file has value because of the patented invention, so the seller is appropriating the economic value of the invention,” he said.

2. Embed 3D printed products with validation features. Companies should also develop or embed internal validation features that can identify authentic and licensed 3d products. Computerworld.com reported that Disney unveiled a system to fight illegal 3D copies by embedding an ID in all authorized 3D prints. This could included a passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that is embedded in the 3D printed object as it is being printed.

Disney filed a patent on the solution along with another patent on a technology that can produce near instantaneous 3D printing. Disney stated in a press release that “the digital file defines not only the outer shell of the 3D object but also a unique identifier or identification (ID) element to be printed in the inner volume (within the outer shell) of the 3D object in one or more layers.”

3. License products for 3D printing. Rather than try to solely police the marketplaces for counterfeits, one option may be to license certain products for 3D printing. According to an article in ZDnet, Hasbro announced a partnership with 3D printing service Shapeways to allowing licensing to a group of artists to create fan art based on My Little Pony. Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen said it’s a concept where “everyone wins” with Hasbro earning revenues through licensing, the designer earning money through creativity, and Shapeways making money on manufacturing.

4. Consult IP legal experts. Even companies that want to implement their own 3D printing programs could potentially engage in IP rights infringement. Printing replacement parts for equipment, replicating prototypes of patented products, or licensing design files for products to be printed elsewhere could all present legal risks. Companies that plan to use the technology should seek 3D printing legal counsel to ensure they’re proceeding carefully.

Tech reporter Scott Grunewald said in a post at 3Dprint.com that “as access to affordable industrial quality 3D printing services expands, there is going to be a much greater need for legal counsel to navigate these uncharted waters.”

Craig Guillot :Craig Guillot is a business writer based in New Orleans, La. His work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com and CNBC.com. You can read more about his work at www.craigdguillot.com.