A typical 3D printing set-up. Includes a FELIX 3D Printer currently printing, a Macbook running 3D printing software and some example 3D printed objects.

Challenges loom for IP rights in 3D printing

CD with skull and crossbones icon and ‘music’ text.
Just as IP protections for digital music lagged in the early 2000s, IP protections for 3D printing lag today.

My father-in-law, Carl, ran a precision machining business for the better part of 40 years. Although he’s now retired, he still retains an interest in new technologies as part of his relationship with a local college. As my son approaches his 14th birthday later this month, Carl asked me if he had a 3D printer. The answer is no, but his question prompted me to think again about the larger implications of 3D printing and IP rights and how they echo the earlier challenges that arose with digital music and illicit, unlicensed downloads.

Unlicensed downloads posed significant challenges for higher education as the new millennium approached. Institutions found themselves hosting file sharing services such as Napster that often facilitated breaches in copyright law. For the music industry, it wasn’t just the establishment of digital formats and distribution as an industry standard, but also the data transfer speed students enjoyed in their dorm environs that opened the floodgates. As the music industry grappled with how to enforce their artists’ rights, higher education institutions (HEIs) began to face both philosophical and practical consequences as ethical, legal, and bandwidth issues coalesced and landed with a reverberating thud. As (sometimes inadvertent) hosts of peer-to-peer sharing systems, HEIs felt the heat from legislators, who began to approach the intractability of the problem with regulatory compliance rules. But for many of the music industry’s smaller and independent players – who struggled the most with how to preserve and protect their intellectual property rights – it was too little too late.

Federal lawmakers are often well behind the curve when it comes to dealing with unanticipated consequences of new technology paradigms, and many in tech transfer see similar issues looming with new additive manufacturing or 3D printing technology. Low entry costs and existing advanced computer aided design (CAD) software give a tremendous breadth of possibilities for 3D printing IP development. But with that development also comes the possibility of IP infringement.

Additive manufacturing is now an important part of many engineering and advanced manufacturing programs at colleges and universities worldwide. More than 7000 patent applications related to 3D printing have been filed in recent years, including one owned by Miami University. At a 2016 conference hosted by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), USPTO Deputy Director Russ Slifer indicated that patent filings related to 3D printing technology grew 23-fold in a five-year period (USPTO blog).

One key concern surrounds the IP that resides in a basic CAD file. In some circumstances the IP extends beyond a copyright that might exist in the file itself to patent rights attributable to the printed product. Therein lies an interesting distinction: copyright protection can extend to the digital domain, whereas the patent in the generic case relates to the object produced. A digital rendering of a patented medical device has little practical utility, but a digital CAD file of the device might be highly valuable.

US patent law provides remedies against infringers, as well as individuals or entities who induce others to infringe. In the earlier example of digital music files, most people – even those who have no experience creating or producing music – have some understanding of copyright comprising the artist’s intellectual property. How, though, would a typical end-user, especially a non-commercial home user, be aware of patent rights that might exist for a product that can be printed via a downloaded CAD file? Because the current patent rights enforcement regime requires the infringer (or those who induce infringement) to have knowledge of the existence of a patent, this leaves a loophole of sorts in the protections provided to innovators.

A second, and equally important aspect is the IP nature of the printed product itself. A digital CAD file of a three-dimensional figurine from a well-known movie franchise may be copyrighted, but the printed object itself may also be subject to various elements of copyright protection, as well as trademark protection. A large part of the challenge for companies or individuals who hold these IP rights is that the low cost of some of the new additive manufacturing devices could allow end users to bypass elements of the basic business supply chain that have precluded this type of infringement in the past.


Written by Reid Smith, Director of Technology Transfer and Business Partnerships, Miami University.

3D printer photo by Jonathan Juursema via Wikimedia Commons. Music piracy photo by Santeri Viinamäki via Wikimedia Commons. Both used under Creative Commons license.

A hand wearing a purple glove holds a cylindrical, transparent hydrogel in its palm. In the background, more hydrogels rest in petrie dishes and various metal instruments are on a parchment-colored tray.

3D printing is a promising new dimension in medicine

Two women in white lab coats are focused on and touching a piece of machinery on a tabletop. The machine is made primarily of white plastic, but also has some metal parts, and it has some cables extending out from it. The woman in the left of the frame has long, dark blonde hair. She is seated and wears glasses. The other woman stands to the first woman's left. She also wears glasses and has short, dark hair.
Master’s student Martha Fitzgerald (left) and Dr. Jessica Sparks, associate professor in chemical, paper, and biomedical engineering, conduct research to create lifelike tissues with a 3-D printer.

Painful pressure ulcers often afflict the elderly and people with limited mobility. Better known as bedsores, these ulcers sometimes lead to life-threatening complications and can be costly to treat.

“They’re something that all long-term care facilities want to prevent in any way that they can,” says Jessica Sparks, an associate professor in the department of chemical, paper, and biomedical engineering at Miami University.

Sparks is collaborating with Miami nursing faculty Deborah Beyer and Brenda Barnes ’82 on a proposal to develop pressure ulcer models that are realistic in color and shape.

Their proposal involves additive manufacturing (AM) technology. AM — often referred to as 3-D printing — uses three-dimensional design data to deposit successive layers of metal, plastic, or other material until a three-dimensional solid item is complete.

“We’re going to use the models to train the frontline staff, who would be the most likely to see a very early-stage pressure ulcer developing on a patient,” Sparks says.

Those staff members could then call in a wound care specialist to administer treatment before the condition progresses.

“Using 3-D printing in the field of medical simulation for training has lots of potential,” Sparks says. “Those two things should go together.”

Sparks, Beyer, and Barnes plan to request funding for their project from the Ohio Board of Regents’ Workforce Development and Equipment Facility program within the next two years. They are encouraged that recent conversations with a large regional hospital and wound care specialists at the Veterans Affairs health system have generated enthusiasm for this work.

“Their response makes it clear there’s good potential demand for what we’re trying to create,” Sparks says. “I’m confident we’ll have a good test platform for this technology.”

As valuable as models like this are for training, Sparks thinks they’re just beginning to tap into AM technology. With pressure ulcers, she explains, patient-specific anatomy is less important.

The same is not true for other clinical applications, such as a tumor with a specific geometry. In those situations, surgeons need to be able to practice with 3-D models that resemble the real tumor as much as possible, Sparks says.

Commercially available AM equipment can use anatomical data from a CT scan or an MRI to print the type of patient-specific training models Sparks envisions for surgeons. But, these models lack tissue-like mechanical properties.

“Some 3-D printers can print in flexible materials,” Sparks says, “but those materials don’t do a great job of mimicking biological tissue.”

Sparks wants to change that. Aided by a research incentive grant from Miami’s Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, she and her biomedical engineering colleagues Jason Berberich and Justin Saul are developing new 3-D printing platforms. They use materials that look and feel more like human skin, muscle, blood vessels, and other soft tissue.

The research incentive grant also supports the work of research assistant and master’s student Martha Fitzgerald ’13, who plans to write her thesis on the techniques she has helped develop.

Together with Sparks and Berberich, Fitzgerald has written an oral presentation that she will deliver at the Biomedical Engineering Society national conference in October, an “excellent opportunity for Martha,” Sparks says.

Other students have benefited from work in Sparks’ lab as well. Last year, Sparks, Berberich, and Saul supervised two teams of senior biomedical and chemical engineering majors whose yearlong, self-directed capstone projects focused on the new 3-D printing platforms in development.

One of the two teams won a prestigious Undergraduate Research Award, which provides financial support for the university’s most promising faculty-mentored research by students. Sparks and Berberich plan to mentor two more teams this year.

“By involving students in research — where there is no recipe or cookbook that tells you, ‘If you follow all these steps, you will get the exact answer you’re expecting’ — I help student engineers develop not only technical skills, but also the problem-solving skills they’ll need to meet the growing demand for AM in the economy,” Sparks says.

Her commitment to mentoring may mean that her contributions to the field of AM will extend well beyond her own discoveries and innovations to influence those of future generations of engineers.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Image of hand holding hydrogel by Heather Beattey Johnston, OARS. Image of Fitzgerald and Sparks by Jeff Sabo, Miami University.

This post originally appeared as an article in The Miamian, the magazine of Miami University’s alumni association.  It is re-used here with permission.