IP is defined as covering the copyright, design rights, trademarks and patents of a product. This means that it is not allowed to directly copy a product unless you have permission from the original author. But how do you protect a 3D print design or your product when it is easy to scan and print a lot of things today?
The original STL file used in CAD applications and 3D printing since the 1980´s does not support any form of copyright protection. A lot of thought is now going into how to protect designs and products and ensure that designers and manufacturers get paid for their work. Over the next few years it is expected that more 3D designs and prints will use the new 3MF file format which was announced last year by a consortium consisting of many 3D key players. Within this file format, it offers support for colour and also contains attributes for digital signatures (confirmed that the part has not been modified since it was originally designed) and copyright information. While this is a step in the right direction what can you do if someone scans your product, prints it and tries to sell it? The typical route is to ask the person to stop selling the product and if that does not work then some form of litigation will often take place (with some expensive lawyers!). To prove in a court of law if there has been an infringement Dr Joshua Pearce and his team invented an algorithm to check if there has a product´s attributes are the same as another.
Other companies such as Authentise offer designers the ability to send the design directly to the 3D printer without downloading the file and offer a payment service to ensure that the designer gets paid. Another start-up Source3 has created a framework for digital IP recognition and licensing of 3D printed products.
Other innovative solutions are likely to appear within the next few years as 3D printers and scanners become more prevalent. IP protection is something that companies will need to take seriously as Gartner has estimated that by 2018 $100 billion will be lost to IP infringements. Considering that the manufacturing industry is worth approx $12-14 trillion this may seem small but those manufacturers of small, complex parts may see themselves impacted before others. It will also require governments to strike a balance between allowing innovation and legal restrictions.
One final thought is that others consider that IP can become irrelevant. Over time they argue that it will simply not be feasible to police IP protection when people can scan and print whatever they want. I imagine that to someone who has invested a lot of time and money in designing and making a product will consider the IP to be important but they will have to adapt to the 3D printing world and the challenges that this brings. For sure it will be interesting to look forward to 10 or 20 years from now and see what actually happened.