3D Printing and Patent Infringement
Continuing with this theme, let’s turn to software that can make items that are still patented. (I should note that the 3D software community is largely open source, which may limit the problems with 3D software patents down the road).
One implication of 3D printing is that people will be able to make things at home. In other words, you will only need to buy software (and the printer raw materials) rather than the product. This has enormous advantages for the economy (inventory would be far less necessary, for one thing), but it does create a problem. Suppose I write my own software to make something and inadvertently infringe a patent on the object itself. Or a grey market develops for 3D software on patented items, much like pirated music or movies. What happens then?
In this respect, 3D printing will put a lot of pressure on patent law’s rule that even a non-commercial use is infringement. There have been periodic calls for some kind of fair use or innocent user exception for patent. Traditionally, this was rejected because it would weaken patent rights and because the only significant infringers were businesses. (One exception was the farm patent dispute that I discussed in this article, and that did lead to some legislative proposals to limit the scope of infringement). An experimental use exception is available, but that has been rendered virtually meaningless by recent Federal Circuit precedent. All of this may need to be reexamined.
Next time I’ll turn to copyrights and 3D printers.