©2014. Published in Landslide, Vol. 6, No. 4, March/April 2014, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.
In 2011, I arrived late to the 3D printing party. I knew that expiring patents on basic 3D printing technologies were allowing low-cost 3D printers to proliferate. I had heard about MakerBot, an upstart low-cost 3D printer manufacturer in New York promising to change the way we make things. And I learned about RepRap, a group of DIY enthusiasts bent on creating machines that could self-replicate. People had been saying that 3D printers would revolutionize manufacturing, bringing customization to a new level. 3D printers were about to change the planet. It was exciting, but in an age with bitcoin, graphene, quantum computing, and wearable technologies, “world-changing” is a term you hear a lot. Besides, for decades manufacturers had used 3D printing technologies to rapidly prototype parts. Some online commentators and bloggers had noted the potential for low-cost 3D printing to create legal problems, but it all seemed far-fetched and a bit premature to me.
My personal moment of revelation came when I saw an online video of a machine printing the all too familiar bust of the Star Wars character Yoda. Soon after, I saw another machine doing the same . . . and another . . . and another. In fact, perhaps because of his instantly recognizable features, Yoda was everywhere, being used as a means of demonstrating the ever-increasing capabilities and accuracy of low-cost 3D printers. Lucasfilm has vigorously defended its intellectual property rights in the Star Wars franchise, yet here was the likeness of one of its most iconic characters being freely reproduced, distributed, and made. I felt like 3D printing and intellectual property were on a collision course. By 2012, people had started seriously thinking and writing about the impending legal implications of 3D printing. A few legal demand letters were sent from rights holders to alleged patent infringing makers, and I had become deeply interested.
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