by John Hornick
One of 3D printing’s great strengths is its ability to make branded products customized to your needs. Customization is starting to happen. Hasbro partnered with 3D printing fabricator Shapeways so that kids of all ages can create customized versions of Hasbro products, which Shapeways 3D prints and either sells for you or sends to you, on demand. This is an incredible way to get additional mileage from old toy brands.
But 3D printing may also disrupt brands. Let’s say Frank and Jimmy want to 3D print a toy dump truck as a father-and-son project. They surf the Internet and find a digital blueprint that vaguely resembles a famous brand-name dump truck. They download the blueprint and print a fully functioning toy. Every time this happens, the famous brand is one step closer to ceasing mass production of toy dump trucks.
The ability to 3D print almost anything may substantially reduce the need and demand for branded products. Why print a genuine product when you can print a generic substitute, especially if the blueprint for the generic is free? You may even tweak the blueprint so that it looks exactly like the name-brand product, and add the brand name. This may be brand infringement, but it will happen. So will people buy genuine branded products if they can more cheaply obtain blueprints and make (and customize) those products themselves?
Perfect tools for counterfeiting
You name it and counterfeiters will be able to make it with 3D printers. Virtually any branded product will be counterfeited with 3D printers by printing it with or without the brand, or by printing a generic product with a brand name on it. 3D printers will make it much easier for enterprising counterfeiters to enter the game, and counterfeiting will become democratized.
Brands are protected by trademarks covering the brand name and sometimes the look and feel of the product, such as its shape or color, and sometimes by other IP. Brand owners will have tools to fight back against the counterfeiters, if they can find them. This problem will not be fundamentally different from brand counterfeiting today, except that it will be on a much larger scale.
Brand as savior
Maybe the brand will be a savior in a 3D-printed world. To survive, brand owners will be forced to provide added value, which will lead some consumers to continue to want and even demand authentic branded products. Some customers will pay a premium for genuine standard or customized parts and the verified safety and performance of the brand. Others will print the parts themselves, some according to specs, some not. As always, price and other factors will affect each customer’s decision. For example, a customer may 3D print parts from lower-quality material if the parts are sacrificial or are not mission-critical, or are needed immediately. For many parts that consumers can 3D print, brand simply may not be important.
As 3D printing democratizes manufacturing, manufacturers will be forced to police the marketplace for copies of their products and blueprints, to find ways to identify genuine products, and to try to stop poor quality and dangerous copies, and copies that infringe their IP rights. Determining what products are genuine will be much more complicated in a 3D-printed world.
John Hornick has been a counselor and litigator in the Washington, D.C., office of the Finnegan IP law firm for over 30 years. The author of the new book 3D Printing Will Rock the World, he advises clients about how 3D printing may affect their businesses, frequently writes about 3D printing, and has lectured about 3D printing all over the world.