Monday, March 31, 2014

Traditional Manufacturing, Fabrication Rights and the Audio Cassette

          by Brian Orlotti

A discussion on the impact of 3D printing on traditional manufacturing was one of the highlights of the 2014 Canadian Space Commerce Association Annual Conference (CSCA2014), which was held on March 13th in Toronto, ON.

A portion of the display organized by the CRP Group USA at CSCA 2014, showing sales literature and 3D printed industrial parts for automotive and aerospace applications. Photo c/o Chuck Black.

Brett Slaney, a patent agent with law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, focused his talk on 3D printing’s effects on intellectual property (IP). The crux of his argument was that 3D printers will allow individuals to duplicate both patented and non-patented physical objects, necessitating a reconsideration in protection strategies which shift from patent-focused IP protection to a registered design focus.

Dexter, the open source action figure. Photo c/o Jason Welsh.
He noted that, subject to some exceptions, current Canadian copyright law allows someone to reproduce the design of an object having a utilitarian function (when produced in quantities greater than 50). 

In addition, he said that Canadian trademark law had no specific protection for unregistered designs. In Canada, protecting a design using trademark registration requires demonstrating its distinctiveness and proving that it enjoys a sufficient reputation. 

As outlined in the July 12th, 2013 Makerbot Thingverse post "Open Source Action Figure with 70 Points of Articulation (aka Dexter)," many examples of such open-source action figures already exist and and plans are even available for download. Slaney had commented that the easy reproduction of such action figures causes a potential concern for trademark owners, particularly because cheaper 3D scanning and printing capabilities allows potential infringers to be everyday consumers, which a company may not wish to sue.

Slaney then went on to address the need for protection directed to the instructions allowing for 3D printers and 3D design files. However, he remarked that such measures may end up being ineffective, citing the parallels with what happened in the digital music and software industries. He suggested that there could be a need for a ‘fair-use’ regime (like that used in the pre-digital music age), where individuals would be able to replicate a set number of copies of an object for personal use.

Science fiction and fantasy environments are also beginning to extrapolate the logical consequences of widely available 3D printing technologies. For example, a the popular Mass Effect computer games postulate a future where even complex physical mechanisms are easily reproducible and weapons like the ML-77 Missile Launcher (shown above) can only really be restricted via legal constraints, such as "fabrication rights technology." Graphic c/o Mass Effect Wiki.

According to Slaney, one of the biggest legal questions around 3D printing is that of where liability falls for patent/design infringement. Is it the individual who prints the offending object, the owner of the website where the offending file was downloaded from, or the person who created the infringing 3D design file? Slaney remarked that IP protection strategies may need to change to adapt to the new reality. Slaney also said that while 3D printers aren't yet technically capable of such large scale IP infringement, particularly where the objects are complex and require specialized materials, this question will become crucial in the future.

During the question period after Slaney’s talk, Rob Godwin, the Owner of Apogee Books (a leading space book publisher) asked if Slaney thought there were any parallels between 3D printing’s effect on manufacturing and the sea-changes in the music and publishing industries brought about by the Internet and MP3 technology.

"Oh, everything's stolen nowadays. Why the fax machine is nothing but a waffle iron with a phone attached!" ---Grampa Simpson from 'The Simpsons,' episode 'Krusty Gets Kancelled.'
Slaney agreed that the manufacturing sector is on the verge of a similar upheaval and went on to say that as 3D printing democratizes manufacturing while reducing the cost of producing goods to near-zero, the entire paradigm of foreign outsourcing could become challenged or even irrelevant.

Brian Orlotti.
In essence, we may one day swap products via Bittorrent and protest against ‘Fabrication Rights Management.’

Perhaps future generations will view big box stores with the same bewilderment as a millennial gazing at a cassette tape.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

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