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Vishal Singh By Vishal Singh • January 20, 2018

Importance of Intellectual Property Protection for 3D Printing

3D printing is emerging as one of the most influential technologies in the 21st century. Having already left its mark in aerospace, automotive, medical devices and consumer products, advancement of the technology isn't showing any signs of slowing down. As the price of 3D printers continues to decrease and the technology becomes more decentralized, application engineers and designers will also begin to rapidly invent new 3D printed products and tools.
Albeit beneficial to innovation in general, it's important for engineers to understand the importance of IP (intellectual property), especially in the realm of 3D printing/CAD designs. Prior to the adoption of 3D printing technology, proprietary inventions were fairly easy to protect. Most people wouldn't have the expertise or resources to copy and invention. Unfortunately, protecting present-day 3D printed designs aren't as easy.

Currently, stealing a 3D model is as easy as sending a CAD file through email. Imagine spending years researching and engineering a medical device only to have it stolen in 30 seconds through a simple message exchange. Since 3D printers are becoming increasingly available to a wider variety of people, actually producing a stolen product isn't much of a challenge. With that said, the importance of IP is growing more than ever.

Still not convinced? We'll break it down with 3 reasons why intellectual property protection is absolutely necessary and should become the industry norm.


1. Theft of 3D Blueprints is Easy

In the past, when an inventor created some sort of proprietary technology, protecting it was a much easier task. Typically, the blueprints for creating that technology were tangible and could easily be kept secret. In the past, the only two ways that designs could be copied are by reverse-engineering a 3D model or stealing the physical blueprints.


On the other hand, with 3D printer designs, blueprints are kept as an intangible CAD file (files like the ones 3D printers use as directions on how to print out a particular design). By storing these designs digitally, CAD files can easily be transferred from person to person which make design theft easier than ever before. The only way that these designs can be protected is through file encryption and patent/copyright property. Although file encryption is one effective way to protect files from being illegally obtained, this form of protection has limitations.


2. Encryption Doesn't Assign Ownership

If a model owner shares their work with others, encryption doesn't legally protect owners from unauthorized use of their designs. While iterating on any technology, peer collaboration is quite common and getting feedback is a fundamental aspect of product design and is mostly unavoidable.


In a perfect world, it would be safe for inventors to share their work with others, but unfortunately, design theft does happen. The only way for owners to protect the ownership of their designs are by using intellectual property protection. Using patents and copyrights give 3D model owners another aspect of legal protection that encryption simply doesn't give.


3. Ease of Reproduction

One of the most attractive aspects of 3D printing is the ability to iterate and reproduce designs with ease. As long as an individual has the software (a CAD file) and the hardware (the necessary printer) to create a design, they could reproduce it indefinitely. With 3D printers becoming cheaper and increasingly available to regular consumers, almost anybody would print designs on their own.


Unfortunately, this means that designs could be stolen and reproduced quickly as well. In the past, inventors mainly feared large manufacturers with the machines and resources that gave manufacturers a clear competitive advantage over promising inventors. Now, anybody with a 3D printer could go to market quickly and take profits away from design owners. Intellectual property is the only shield standing between design owners and those looking to steal designs.

For every talented designer, there are a dozen people attempting to steal designs in order to make a profit—unfortunately, not every person can be trusted. The protection of intellectual property through patents, copyrights, and trademarks are the only way designers can legally protect themselves and thus are becoming increasingly important in the 3D printing industry