Increasing prevalence of 3-D printers raises concerns about copyright, patent law

Junior+Joshua+%22Josh%22+Chang+works+with+machinery+in+the+engineering+department.+In+their+work%2C+TechHOUNDS+utilize+the+3-D+printer%2C+which+makes+production+easy+and+cheap+while+also+raising+several+copyright+and+patent+questions.

Junior Joshua “Josh” Chang works with machinery in the engineering department. In their work, TechHOUNDS utilize the 3-D printer, which makes production easy and cheap while also raising several copyright and patent questions.

James Streisel

Junior Joshua "Josh" Chang works with machinery in the engineering department. In their work, TechHOUNDS utilize the 3-D printer, which makes production easy and cheap while also raising several copyright and patent questions.
Junior Joshua “Josh” Chang works with machinery in the engineering department. In their work, TechHOUNDS utilize the 3-D printer, which makes production easy and cheap while also raising several copyright and patent questions.

A machine slowly pieced bits of melted plastic together into a shape. Junior Joshua “Josh” Chang watched eagerly as his vision came to life. As if in a science fiction film, an object that was once a model on a computer slowly appeared before his eyes in three dimensions.

The machine Chang used is called a rapid prototyping device, which is a type of 3-D printer. He used it as part of a project in his Introduction to Engineering Design 1-2 (IED) class. Students use the printer to print out plastic blocks they design on a computer-aided design (CAD) software called Inventor.

A 3-D scanner analyzes the object and translates it into digital data. The scanner works by recording the distance to the surface of the object and building a set of location points called a “point cloud.” Some scanners also collect color information at each point. The scanner depicted calculates the distance from two locations and angles while the object spins on a rotating plate.
A 3-D scanner analyzes the object and translates it into digital data. The scanner works by recording the distance to the surface of the object and building a set of location points called a “point cloud.” Some scanners also collect color information at each point. The scanner depicted calculates the distance from two locations and angles while the object spins on a rotating plate.

“We first draw it up on CAD and make sure all the dimensions are right,” Chang said. “Then we basically just send it to the printer, and the printer will print it out.”

This school bought the Dimension BST 768 3-D printer Chang used for the project about six years ago for over $10,000. However, many 3-D printers today cost less than $1,000. According to a 2013 NPR article, the reduced cost of 3-D printers makes them more accessible for people who may print copyrighted or patented objects without any monetary contribution to the objects’ creators. This practice may cause an “infringement crisis” similar to those which affect the music and film industries currently.

Alternatively, a programmer can manually design an object in the computer. Software programs can take a visual and create a “point cloud” from it.
Alternatively, a programmer can manually design an object in the computer. Software programs can take a visual and create a “point cloud” from it.

However, for widespread infringement to arise, 3-D printers themselves must become widespread. George Giltner, engineering and technology teacher, said he believes 3-D printing technology could become prevalent enough to the point of ordinary consumer availability.

“I could definitely see (3-D printers) as being more of a family product,” Giltner said.

Gerard Magliocca, professor of law at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), is currently conducting research regarding infringement law pertaining to 3-D printing.

“If you have 3-D printers, it makes it pretty easy for people to make something that’s patented in their house, illegally,” Magliocca said. “What we’re trying to figure out is what that’s going to mean for patent law.”

According to Magliocca, there is currently little legislation restricting what 3-D printers can create.

“Right now, of course, there really aren’t any laws that are special with respect to 3-D printers because it’s such a new thing,” Magliocca said.

The computer uses the point cloud to create a 3-D model in a format the printer can read. Several companies have released software programs such as Blender, Rhino, and Google Sketchup to help design this.
The computer uses the point cloud to create a 3-D model in a format the printer can read. Several companies have released software programs such as Blender, Rhino, and Google Sketchup to help design this.

Magliocca added it is legal for people to upload plans for 3-D printers onto websites like Thingiverse, which is a file-sharing website for 3-D printer plans. People can even post plans for copyrighted or patented objects. For example, a popular model on Thingiverse is for a giant Darth Vader Lego figure users can print without giving any money to either Lego or LucasArts, the owner of the Star Wars franchise. The process only becomes illegal when someone uses such a plan to create an unauthorized object.

“That may change soon because I think most people sort of figure this out,” Magliocca said. “Then there’s going to be lobbying Congress to pass a law that says, ‘In fact, websites can’t just go scot-free when people upload (files for copyrighted material).’”

The 3-D printer uses the digital model to make a solid object.  This is achieved through an additive process, in which the printer puts  down layers of material in either lines or slices. This printer is a “line” printer, which constructs objects from lines of material.
The 3-D printer uses the digital model to make a solid object.
This is achieved through an additive process, in which the printer puts down layers of material in either lines or slices. This printer is a “line” printer, which constructs objects from lines of material.

Some of the troubles of infringement using 3-D printers could be alleviated by a system that may become commonplace in the future. Giltner said he has talked with many entrepreneurs who are discussing the possibility of online retailers selling plans for 3-D printer objects. This system would allow people to use those plans to print 3-D objects legally.

“This is where I could see it going,” Giltner said. “You go on Amazon, you buy something and it ships to your house. Well, if you have a 3-D printer at your house, what if you went online and bought the CAD model, and then you send it to your 3-D printer and print it?”

The finished product can be constructed of many materials, including rubber, glass and plastic. The 3-D printing industry is in the process of developing additional methods of printing with different and various materials. HEEJUNG KIM AND DENNIS YANG / GRAPHIC
The finished product can be constructed of many materials, including rubber, glass and plastic. The 3-D printing industry is in the process of developing additional methods of printing with different and various materials. HEEJUNG KIM AND DENNIS YANG / GRAPHIC

Chang said such measures would not be necessary because 3-D printers won’t be used for many practical purposes. He said this is because making plans for 3-D printers is very difficult. As a result, he said 3-D printers will probably only be used for entertainment purposes. For instance, Chang said he would use 3-D printers to make parts for his radio-controlled cars.

“I think most people buy it just for hobby,” Chang said. “3-D printing, it’s not for any commercial purposes.”

This school currently uses 3-D printing primarily as an instructional tool for the CAD project in IED. Occasionally, the TechHOUNDS team also uses a 3-D printer to make parts for its robots, but Chang, who is a TechHOUNDS member, said those parts are mostly for decorative purposes.

Magliocca said he thinks 3-D printing can go beyond just entertainment purposes. He said 3-D printers could be used to make various products such as hearing aids, braces and prosthetic legs. He added that if researchers can make 3-D printers that use materials other than just plastic, they may even be used to easily create human tissue.

“Let’s say someone needs a bone marrow transplant or a new liver. Right now, the only way to get it is to get someone to donate it,” Magliocca said. “If the 3-D printers could just make the organs or make tissue, that would be a huge thing.”

To some extent, some companies have already made useful products using 3-D printers. An engineering company called Kinetic Engineering Group used a 3-D printer to successfully create a prosthetic beak for a bald eagle named Beauty, who had its beak shot off by a bullet. Researchers at Cornell University have even created human ears that are currently undergoing safety testing and may be used for transplant into human patients in as few as three years.

Although Chang said he isn’t as optimistic about the future of 3-D printing as Magliocca, even he can’t deny the excitement in using a 3-D printer.

“(Using a 3-D printer) is actually fun,” Chang said. “You get to see your model grow into a 3-D part you can touch and use.”

 

Want to see a demonstration? Here is a time lapse video of Carmel’s 3-D printer in action. CRYSTAL CHEN / VIDEO

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