3D printers are one of greatest innovations of all time. However, these printers are wrecking havoc on patent holders and it can only get worse.

How a 3D printer works: Download a computer-aided design (CAD) computer digital file and you have the mechanism that instructs a 3D printer to make a physical, three-dimensional object. And, being digital, the file can be shared across on the internet, including on file-sharing services. In short, you can print a 3D [actual] physical object anywhere, including at home.

Scan (or create on your computer) an object and you have the essential elements (“blueprint”) to create a 3D object—just push a button and create the object. But what if the object you created is covered by a patent? Then, you have just engaged in patent infringement.

Patents are documents issued by the federal government that grant the patent owner the right to keep others from making, using, selling or importing the patented invention. 3D printers are used in business and homes across the globe; which makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the patent owner to even be aware that a person or entity is using a 3D printer to recreate [make] the invention that is patented.

Since the Patent Act allows a patent holder to bring suit against a party that facilitates an infringement, your options may include going after the sellers of the 3D printer (that created the infringed object) or a person or entity that provides and/or sells the CAD files. Of course, this is assuming that you are able to locate the infringer.

To infringe on a patent, a tangible version of the patented invention must be made. Under current 3D technology an object can only be created using a CAD file (feeding information into the 3D printer). Perhaps under these facts, an argument could be made that actual CAD files rise to the level of a “digital patent infringement”. Consequently, a person or entity that sells these CAD files could be found to have engaged in digital patent infringement”.

IS IT LIKELY THAT CONGRESS OR THE COURTS WILL ADDRESS THIS ISSUE?

Currently, there is no push for congress or the courts to address this type of patent infringement. It is likely that this issue will not be addressed until a major case is brought by a patent holder against an infringer; thereby bringing this issue out of the shadows and into the forefront of congress and the courts.

Without any repercussions (created by congress or the courts) to the infringer, the advent of the 3D printer will continue to undermine the rights of patent holders.
There will always be persons and entities who seek to profit from the hard work of others. Specifically, those who have invested time, effort and money to develop an invention and receive a patent. We saw this battle over copyrights and digital music. If the courts or congress do not take action soon—the protection otherwise provided to patent holders will be severely diminished.