3D printing may not be for every home--and that is a good thing for IP

Will IP matter? The question seems to arise in the wake of every new disruptive technology. It is no surprise, therefore, that it is being asked in connection with 3D printing, where digital content, easily distributed over the network, is married to the potential for making a myriad of objects in any location where a 3D printer can be operated (think: your home). If the concern a decade ago was how to regulate the downloading of a movie or a song, today it is how to regulate the downloading of a digital file containing all the instructions to make a perfect copy of a product, down to its trade mark. Recalling the discussion a decade or two ago regarding the downloading of digital songs and movies, suggestions are made for various technological solutions. More generally, calls are made for a cultural make-over, where the consumer will habitually come to prefer the genuine product, e.g., using authorized digital instructions and the correct product materials, within the context of 3D printing.

This Kat is all in favour of finding ways by which people will prefer the genuine IP thing. With all due respect to Charles Duhigg and his enthusiasm for fashioning habits, this Kat is not very optimistic about changing collective habits in this manner. Perhaps the more fruitful way to view the problem is to focus on business models in the 3D space. After all, we have seen from the response by the music and film industries that it ultimately it may make more sense to seek business models by which their customers will be prepared to pay for genuine digital contents. This Kat recognizes that 3D printing is a complex ecosystem with more than a few moving parts, such that there is no such thing as a “single business model” that will encompass all involved. Still, it is worthwhile to consider one possibility, namely the potential role of fulfilment centres.

To do so, we need to retreat a bit from the widely-expressed view that 3D printing will become the ultimate form of disintermediation, whereby ultimately each of us will have one or more 3D printers in our home for making endless products to our heart’s consent. Under this view, the customer becomes the manufacturer, and the role of entities to sell and distribute products to us, be it Wall-Mart or Amazon.com, is significantly diminished. This Kat remains skeptical that a large swathe of the population will want to engage in making things in their spare time, at the expense of exploiting the home as a source of entertainment and information. Still, many persons will be attracted to 3D printing as a means for enabling the making of goods suited for one’s specific requirements, even if such production will not take place within the confines of one’s home.

So where might this 3D printing take place? The answer—at a commercial fulfilment centre, by which we mean at the physical site of an entity, where a customer will be able to select the desired product, and the fulfilment centre will then proceed to make it on-site for the customer. True, the fulfilment centre will also benefit from this arrangement as form of middleman, but in so doing it will provide a desired service for a customer, who wants to benefit from 3D printing, but not at home.

While the image of 3D printing taking place at a fulfillment center is less romantic than the view of every man and woman being a craftsman at home, it seems to this Kat such a business model will more favorable for protecting IP rights. This is because a fulfillment center will likely have a much greater incentive to ensure that its 3D printing operation is fully IP compliant. Because it is in business of commercially facilitating 3D printing for customers, a fulfilment centre can ill afford to be identified as a source of unauthorized production files or substandard, or inappropriate, production materials. After all, the fulfillment center has a business reputation to protect, in exchange for being able to commercially benefit from the 3D printing ecosystem.

Moreover, it may be significantly easier to enforce one’s IP rights vis a vis a fulfilment centre than to try and go after a legion of miscreants at home for alleged IP violations. We have seen how problematic enforcement at this personal level can be in connection with downloading digital songs and films, either due to privacy concerns or by virtue of an explicit statutory exemption. These challenges might be materially reduced if 3D printing becomes less a matter of home production and more the business of commercial fulfilment centres. Ironically, perhaps, IP owners might well hope that, despite the more enthusiastic ambitions of 3D printing advocates, it never really becomes ubiquitous in the home.
3D printing may not be for every home--and that is a good thing for IP 3D printing may not be for every home--and that is a good thing for IP Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, October 30, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. While I agree with your comments as to fulfillment centers being the likely business model for 3D in the near to mid term (see Shapeways.com)as for the long term, take a look at this photograph from an early darkroom for developing photos: http://p.vitalmx.com/photos/forums/2015/04/29/89432/s1200_darkroom_1937.jpg

    When you consider the dangerous chemicals in a darkroom, and the skill involved, it will always be easier to take one's photos to the developer. People will never print out their photos at home.

  2. Reminds me of the adage of the (early) large computer manufacturers pooh-poohing the thought of computers in every home.

    History, they say, repeats (especially for those who refuse to learn the lessons the first time around).

  3. The Cat that Walks by HimselfFriday 30 October 2015 at 21:29:00 GMT

    I would also guess that, at initial stages of mass 3D printing, it will take place in printing centres. And not only because of IP, but also due to issues related to product liability. A first impression is that it will be almost impossible to ensure safety of printed objects from billions of models downloaded from Internet.

    Due to this and also other reasons, comparison with downloaded digital songs and movies seems to be quite rough. Downloaded songs/movies are final products, while a role of downloaded digital 3D model in a final product might differ potentially.

  4. The Cat that Walks by HimselfFriday 30 October 2015 at 21:52:00 GMT

    From the IP perspective, it is probably possible to develop compatibility standards, something like a coffee machine/coffee capsules. I'm not sure whether it would be optimal from innovation point of view. However, it would allow coordination of IP protection. I guess.

  5. The Cat that Walks by Himseld,

    Are you aware of the growing DIS-satisfaction (not to mention legal IP problems that printed companies already face with their own "compatibility" standards?

    The trend is AWAY from such controls.


    The item truly pacing things next will be the limitations of "stock" from which parts can be made.

  6. (there is also a denture case in here in the States with mere "digital data" being imported to sidestep IP rights - that is the trend...)

  7. The question to my mind is "what are people in general going to want to 3D print?"
    My everyday (well, once a week) purchases are food - not 3D printable.
    Next is clothing - ditto.
    And then you get to furniture and appliances - ditto.
    Now, if I had a five-year old and could print Lego blocks or plastic toys cheaper than I could buy them (which seems unlikely, given the cost of the printer and consumables), maybe there'd be something I would 3D print.
    Am I missing something here?

  8. Derek,

    Interesting questions, but not sure I agree with the answers (not for you, of course, your predilections are your own).

    For example, food: think Star Trek replicator. Think print instead of cook. Think you load the basics once per "x" timeframe, and instantly you have what you want with a mere push of a button or voice command.

    DO your really not see that most people would want that?

    (if so, please join the computer executive who could not see that most people would want a computer in their home).

    Likewise clothing.

    Major appliances? Tougher, but perhaps you missed the piece on the "self-printing bridge." The possibilities of printing items are NOT limited by your imagination. With minimal snark, I would say that that is a good thing - a very good thing.

    To answer your last question then, yes, my friend, you are missing something here.

  9. "You just don't get it" is the perennial cry of technophiles.

    "You just don't get it" is the perennial response to technophiles.

    2D manufacture has been available for centuries, but I still find it more convenient to buy my underpants than knit them.

    I am sure 3D manufacture will find a place in the home. I am pretty certain it won't be as important as boosters suggest for many years.

    Let's see what happens.

  10. Just like copyright cannot be enforced against printshops it will not be possible to enforce it against 3D printshops. Printshops have no means, nor any incentive whatsoever to enforce copyrights of third parties against their own customers. Whether I print the Mona Lisa for which the copyright has presumably been exhausted in a print shop on canvas or Warhol whose rights are still alive the shop owner will just print it and deliver it.

    It's simple none of any nosy third party's business what I have printed for my private use whether on paper, coffee cups or in 3d. Should the IP industry try to do this, it will hamper a promising industry. This would not be socially desirable and would put into question IP itself. In the worst scenario it will push the production to regions not bothering about foreign IP, I can always order my stuff to be printed in China, North Korea ecc.

    3d printing like photocopiers is indeed a danger to IP, but so were automobiles to horse cart producers, photography to portrait painters. Digital photography to Kodak and the Swedish paper industry.

    You'll have to live with it. Find something else to do, preferably more socially useful.

    In the production of electronic PCB boards and chips the actual production is outsourced to external manufacturers who have no idea whatsoever what they are producing since several decades. The comparison with multimedia content is inappropriate. 3D printing is not about rendering a physical object available to the public but a private exchange between two participants based on fully confidential information exchanged between these two parties only.

  11. One field where 3D printing would find a use is the making of replacement mechanical parts (such as plastic gears or cams where the originals have become brittle) for repairing equipment for which spares are no longer available. Not much use where the originals are metal.

  12. Judging from the comments above, I believe that this may be eye-opening:

    3D Printing and the Intersection of Intellectual Property (02:28:23) - Wednesday, February 25, 2015, Washington College of Law, American Univ.:
    (Everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask.)

    And, since nothing tech holds still long enough to really get a grip on it:
    "Called CLIP, for Continuous Liquid Interface Production, the technology combines elements of SLA with a photochemical process, and the result is that parts are not so much printed—that is, they're not laid down/cured/sintered one layer at a time—so much as they are grown, out of what seems an impossibly shallow dish of liquid"

    Lastly, just for fun:



    And yes, 3D printing of food and fashion is old news already.

    Amalyah Keshet
    Head of Image Resources & Copyright Management
    The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

  13. While I'm at it:

    Having very recently run into a 3D printing vs. artist’s copyright incident at my museum, this item from Techdirt caught my eye:


    There are more errors than a cat has lives in this “analysis” of the copyright issues, but one
    of the problems with incidents like this is that there is always half a thought or so that’s actually not stupid:

    “… the Duchamp estate would have a difficult time arguing that this is inappropriate, given Duchamp's own artwork.”

    Marcel Duchamp, like many (most?) artists, was a serial infringer (copyist, adapter, derivative-maker, sampler, remixer, parodist, satirist, you name it). He would have been delirious with excitement had he lived to see 3D printing, and he would have scanned and printed everything in sight, metamorphizing things with abandon.

    The other half of that half-thought? “If copyright is built to encourage expression…” Yup. If every artist followed copyright law to the letter, there would be (barring fair use) no art. The problems arise when artists’ heirs, who enjoy 70 very long years of copyright dictatorship (to put it in Techdirtesque terms) exploit it to the point of wringing it dry. Cease and desist! Nope. That’s not what copyright was meant to do. To artists today, Duchamp is as ancient as Rembrandt; to be barred from playing with his work, from riffing on it, seems inexplicably bizarre. Bloody awkward at best. Infuriating at worst.

    And downtrodden copyright managers like me, in museums and other creative institutions, are left actually apologizing to artists and art event organizers for the fact that no, they were not allowed to think what they thought and do what they did and explore what they explored without express permission from the artist’s family, which claims to have exclusive control over every nuance of the artist’s present and future influence.

    Have a provocative day.

    Amalyah Keshet
    Head of Image Resources & Copyright Management
    The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


  14. For some more eye-opening fun:


    "The SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) plane is an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) whose entire structure has been printed, including wings, integral control surfaces and access hatches. It was printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer by layer.

    "No fasteners were used and all equipment was attached using 'snap fit' techniques so that the entire aircraft can be put together without tools in minutes"


    "This sort of procedure is becoming more and more common among doctors and medical researchers. Almost every day, I receive an e-mail from my hospital’s press office describing how yet another colleague is using a 3-D printer to create an intricately realistic surgical model—of a particular patient’s mitral valve, or finger, or optic nerve—to practice on before the actual operation. Surgeons are implanting 3-D-printed stents, prosthetics, and replacement segments of human skull. The exponents of 3-D printing contend that the technology is making manufacturing more democratic; the things we are choosing to print are becoming ever more personal and intimate. This appears to be even more true in medicine: increasingly, what we are printing is ourselves."

    Through 3D Printing, A Fashion Collection is Born at Home:


    Amalyah Keshet

  15. Amalyah,

    Thank you for the wonderful links and the delightfully cynical views!


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