Will 2013 be the year 3D printing sparks a patent law armageddon?


The MakerBot Replicator.

I recently mentioned how 3D printers are really going to kick the copyright wars into high gear. With the cost of the machines dropping precipitously—basic models such as the Portabee can be had for as low as $500—the world is literally on the cusp of a revolution.

It’s actually hard to overstate how much things will change over the next few years as these printers become commonplace. On the industrial side, they hold the promise of bringing manufacturing back from China for many Western interests. As several writers have pointed out, American companies such as Apple could make iPhones in the United States because printing out products and having them assembled by robots will be even cheaper than the human labour in China.

That will have huge ramifications. It would make a good chunk of lower- and middle-class jobs obsolete on both sides of the world and could also reverse globalization.

That’s a bigger, longer-term issue, but the more immediate fireworks are likely to be felt on the individual consumer level, and likely in 2013. The legal wranglings have already started. As Clive Thompson wrote in Wired last year, Games Workshop went after an individual who had posted 3D printer designs online of its Warhammer miniatures. The amateur designer, fearful of a lawsuit, promptly removed his designs.

Yet experts point out that physical objects are covered more by patent law, which is looser and a lot harder to enforce than copyright law. Translation: The push for stronger patent laws is about to ratchet up, especially with The Pirate Bay launching Physibles, its own category of 3D printer designs.

Indeed, a patent has already been filed for what is effectively 3D printer DRM.

The irony of this is that patent laws are already wildly out of control, with everyone suing everyone and an entire category of companies (patent trolls) existing solely to litigate against those who have allegedly infringed. Manufacturers and designers won’t be able to ignore 3D printing for much longer, so there’ll be more conflicts in 2013 like those involving Games Workshop.

It’s going to make for an exciting year—let the copyright and patent armageddon begin.