Lego's interest in 3D printing should inspire change of minds and business models

Lego: 3D printing of products may encourage counterfeits
Lego: 3D printing of products may encourage counterfeits

Lego has recently speculated on the potential of 3D printing but are rights owners putting themselves at risk of piracy, asks Mark Owen a partner in the trade mark, copyright and media group at Taylor Wessing.

When the original Napster launched in the late 1990s, it seemed barely feasible that digital copying would become a serious threat.

Lego has recently speculated on the future potential of customers printing some of their products at home, suggesting that 3D printing really is about to enter the mainstream. But a is looking toward 3D printing putting them at risk of digital piracy and making it easier for home users and backstreet 3D copyshops to duplicate their products on the cheap?

The Napster moment

There are comparisons to be drawn with the content industries, especially music and film, and how they coped when faced with such a disruptive technology.

When the original Napster launched in the late 1990s, it seemed barely feasible that digital copying would become a serious threat to the established record industry. The technology to make and distribute digital copies was around but few consumers had it. There was little pressure on the industry to change.

Substantial progress has been made both in defining and restricting illegal activities and offering legal alternatives.

But in no time the music business was turned on its head, fighting a constantly renewing and growing Hydra of file-sharing sites, while being criticised on all sides for not adapting its business model to the new environment.

Mindsets and business models catch up

While that fight isn't over, it has calmed down because substantial progress has been made both in defining and restricting illegal activities and offering legal alternatives. But it required a significant adaptation in both mindset and business models.

The film industry had an advantage over music that copying films required both sizeable computer memory and broadband access, neither of which were generally available when music's challenges began.  So while the film world has also endured a torrid time with digital piracy, it has had longer to adapt its tactics and business models.

Has Lego learned the lessons of the content industries?

Though burdened with increasingly rapid cycles of change and adoption of technology, it has a number of advantages.

The first is that many of the legal issues which a rights owner would have to deal with when trying to control digital copies are now clear. 

Following a path first navigated by the film industry, rights owners have become much more savvy about framing copyright complaints.

In response, the courts have developed speedy procedures for ordering blocks on pirate sites (so much so that Labour's much criticised Digital Economy Act, forced through as one of its final acts in power, may never now be fully implemented because parts of it are now simply not required.)  Sites offering unauthorised copies of digital files for 3D printing are now at greater risk of being blocked.

Intellectual property issues still need resolving

Rights owners will argue that embracing 3D printing should not reduce their rights.  But what is it that a rights owner is trying to protect, is it a design or a form of software?  And what sort of protection is most appropriate?

There is not yet a generation of young people who have grown up with the technology and who believe that they are entitled to use it without payment.

Courts have been limiting the use of copyright to protect rights in functional objects and software. So should design rights, which were developed to protect designs of physical objects, be extended to digital files?  And who is the infringer, the person who distributes the digital file without permission, the 3D printing shop or the end user?

There's still time

Perhaps more importantly, rights owners still have some time on their side.  We are where music was in 1998.  3D printers are not yet so cheap that many homes have them.

There is not yet a generation of young people who have grown up with the technology and who believe that they are entitled to use it without payment.

Both these things will surely come, but the industry has a small window within which to work on both education and technological protections.

Winners and losers

If they can get those right, who will be the winners and losers of 3D printing?  Ultimately, it will be price and quality rather than rights which will determine whether or not 3D printing becomes a widespread consumer technology. 

So long as high quality printers remain expensive, there is an opportunity for intermediaries, whether retailers or a new version of internet cafes to offer printing services.

Meanwhile, platforms are already offering printing files for huge ranges of items from mundane household objects to intricate proprietary designs.  Many of these files are user-generated but bigger commercial concerns are becoming involved.

Will platforms and copyshops need a licence from rights owners, or will they be able to argue that they are only providing innocent facilities?

Creating an alternative to piracy is essential

The brave may try to argue that UK copyright law protects very few functional 3D objects and so they are not infringing anyone's rights, but they would still need to navigate a minefield of other intellectual property, patents, design rights and possibly even rights in data and links, and so in most cases they would be sensible to have a licence.

Ultimately, we are likely to reach a similar position to where the content industries now find themselves, in which is it recognised that rights do exist and the challenges are in enforcing them and in producing an attractive alternative to piracy through new business models and licensing schemes.

As with the content industries before it, 3D rights owners face a dilemma. Do you resist it and hope 3D printing is a passing fad, or do you embrace it? Make the wrong choice and it may well print your lunch.

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