A US court, adjudicating on matters concerning patents a few months ago issued a decision with some serious importance for 3D printing. He decided that the US International Trade Commission has no right to prohibit the importation of digital design objects to the United States. The decision was not obvious, though.

The case, which forced the Appeal Court for the US Federal District to take on the issue, concerns two rival manufacturers… of teeth aligners – Align and ClearCorrect. The first of them accused the other of violating its patent rights. This was to consist in using the patented process of aligners project preparation on the basis of a 3D scan of the client’s teeth. The point is that the preparation of the projects was carried out on the other side of the world – in Pakistan, where the American patent is not applicable. Therefore, Align decided to harness the American justice system to block the “dastardly” circumvention of their patent.

The US International Trade Commission is an independent federal agency dedicated to control international trade and to protect the US industry from unfair practices such as copyright and patent infringement. If the court had made a different decision, the committee would have had the right to force the Internet service providers to monitor the network traffic and to provide the transmitted data. This means that the decision of the court has legal consequences far beyond mere 3D printing. Suffice to say that the case was also closely monitored by the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, which insisted on controlling digital data.

The court’s decision applies to many other aspects of the 3D printing process than just dental aligners. Companies engaged in the sale of spare parts also start to uneasy at the thought of uncontrolled transmission of digital blueprints of parts of equipment and machines and the ability to print them on the increasingly popular and more perfect 3D printers. Device manufacturers, who have previously paid the cost of their products’ preparation, do not want to lose control over their products. In other words, they would like to restrict the access to digital blueprints of the elements of their devices. Also, if they have been made by means of reverse engineering, that is – scanned in 3D. They wish the court to recognize the blueprints as articles of manufacture that are subject to patent.

The court, however, has not made a decision on the legal status of the projects. It only ruled that the International Trade Commission has the right to control physical objects, not intangible assets, such as digital projects. This unfortunately means that the decision as to whether projects can be considered to be products and therefore protected by patents, is yet to be made in the future.

The legal consequences of the final decisions on this matter will be critical for the 3D printing industry. In case of a corporate victory you can forget about such 3D printing ideals as the possibility of independent manufacturing of spare parts or printing your own replicas of the scanned objects, even in a modified version. The Thingiverse and its counterparts will witness a true witch hunt – 3D scans of trade products or 3D versions of anything copyrighted will be trashed right away. Transferring 3D files may become a potentially suspect activity of the Internet pirates… At least until the patents and copyrights owners will get their fill or do not realise that the prosecution of the majority of humanity makes no sense.

Bartosz Kuczyński
Translator, lecturer and creator of didactic games in company Luderis. Increased a potential of 3D printers in 2012.

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