This article by Deven Desai & Gerard Magliocca gives a good overview of the ramifications of 3D printing for all three areas of IP (copyright, patent and trademark).
I agree with the characterization of 3D printing as a continuation of the digitization of commodities that began with music and video files by extending it to tangible objects, and therefore to products that are usually the subject of patent law rather than copyright. It brings with it many of the same issues and it will be interesting to see if industry leaders take the same approaches to dealing with it.
However, I have some reservations about the author’s position that branding will become more important as patent rights become more difficult to enforce. The author seems to think that once anyone can acquire the blueprints for a particular product (and patent disclosure rules seem to make this a certainty) the designer will still be able to market their product based on recognized quality, including safety testing and quality of materials, etc.
It seems to me that once 3D printers are a common household item, consumers will have individual control over the quality of ingredients, just like they can choose the quality of gas they put in their car. Brands may be significant in terms of ensuring quality of design, but once the blueprints become the subject of file-sharing, consumers can take advantage of this quality without compensating the designer. Of course, some consumers will no doubt still be willing to pay for the “real thing,” especially where status symbols like iphones and designer clothes are concerned, but 3D printing will no doubt make it easier to fake a trademark as well. I therefore don’t see branding as a satisfactory solution to 3D printing & patent issues.
It’s also interesting to think about how patent differs from copyright and what that means for file sharing – specifically that filing for patent rights requires disclosure of the design, which might facilitate patent infringement on a grand scale once 3D printing is popularized. If the disclosure requirement suddenly becomes a disincentive to the filing of new patents due to the ease of home-manufacturing engendered by 3D printing, industry will have a strong case for legislative reform.
As for copyright, we know it can apply to 3D copies of 2D expressions of ideas based on the famous Popeye-doll case, which would seem to make printing 3D copies from plans a protected right under copyright law. The authors speculate that if the plan is simply a scan of a 3D object, it will likely not pass the originality test, but otherwise will be covered by the existing copyright regime. I understand this to mean that where the scanned item is already itself copyrighted, the person who makes the scan wouldn’t have copyright in the plans they produce, but the original designer would still have rights of reproduction in their Lego block or whatever it is. Existing copyright legislation can probably address issues such as whether making or distributing the scan is infringement or just printing from the scan, etc.
Finally, none of this is merely hypothetical and I find it exciting that we will get to watch this unfold!