Would you pay for a product if you could print its perfect replica at home? With the latest 3-D printers and 3-D scanners, you might be able do exactly that. Virtually anyone will be able to scan, copy, or modify a patented object and manufacture it at home. Some might even turn this practice into a small business. It sounds great but where lies the balance between preserving intellectual property rights (IPR) and expanding the freedom of common creativity? How should IP laws evolve to accommodate the rise of 3-D printing and 3-D scanning, which will test their limits like nothing before?
The purpose of IPR is to promote creativity and progress. This is how the system is supposed to work: The government grants the patent holder an exclusive right to an invention. Patents allow inventors to make profit. In turn, they are more likely to invest time, money, and their ingenuity to create something that society can benefit from. In a perfect world, everybody wins. In reality, however, nobody knows if these incentives are really needed for creativity to flourish. Some claim the contrary: Proliferation of patents slows down creation of new ideas and impedes progress.
The biggest challenge to exiting IPR is already on its way. Rapid advancements of 3-D printing and 3-D scanners are transforming manufacturing, business, and medicine. Its cutting edge-applications include rapid prototyping, prosthetics, printing pharmaceuticals, and even human organs. This new industrial revolution, however, presents a serious risk of counterfeiting and patent infringement. Counterfeiting itself is not new, but once affordable 3-D printers, along with 3-D scanners, become a common household commodity counterfeiting may explode. Enforcing existing laws might be very difficult and no one might be able to monitor or control such DIY production. As a result, the whole IPR system might not withstand forces of this new manufacturing model and fall like a house of cards.
If you believe in creative anarchy, you might welcome this change. But if you think people should benefit from their inventions and designs, you might want to save IPR in some shape or form. Current IPR will have to change or evolve in order to remain relevant. But, how? One possible approach is setting up a global depository of registered IPs with affordable files or licenses; a sort of “CAD App Store.” Imagine, for example, that you wish to replace a broken piece in your coffee maker. You could purchase a CAD file from the manufacture’s website to print out the part. Similarly, in case you wanted to customize something you like, you could log in to a future CAD file store, download the design, and pay a nominal fee for the license. It is a win-win.
The hope is such a system would strike some balance between providing financial incentive for innovation while promoting least-restrictive sharing and creativity. On the other hand, users of 3-D printers and 3-D scanners might try to find a way to avoid paying even relatively minimal license fees. This could present a serious problem. To solve it, we will need more than a global IP registry. Perhaps we might have to hard-wire 3-D printers and 3-D scanners so that they would have to connect to the Internet and check against the registry in order to print.
Building and maintaining such a database would, undoubtedly, pose some significant challenges—both logistical and financial. We can, however, observe signs of things moving toward this direction. The patent offices from the U.S., EU and Japan announced signing a memorandum on patent applications. Although, the document is intended to decrease redundancy in the patent approval process, it could be also a first step to a more robust global solution to mounting IP problems.
Finally, how long should IPR be granted for? The technological landscape is changing fast and granting a patent for 20 years is no longer reasonable. It could seriously prevent others from modifying and improving existing designs. We should consider shortening it so it does not exceed 10 years. This would give inventors enough time to monetize on their creations. After that period, it should automatically be transferred to creativity commons and available to anyone to use, modify and reengineer.
Adapt or perish. Whatever shape future regulations will take, it is important that they provide incentives for inventors but also expand the freedom of common creativity.