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3D printing businesses targeted by legal challenges

The promising technology of 3D printing seems poised to revolutionize manufacturing, but not before the businesses at the forefront of the industry successfully survive a growing number of legal hurdles. Specifically, a number of small firms capitalizing on the increasing availability of consumer-oriented 3D printers have been served with cease-and-desist letters and threats of commercial litigation from larger companies over accusations of copyright infringement and other similar offenses.

One trademark and patent attorney called the current state of a 3D printing a "tipping point" due to the technology's newly low cost. "If you're a manufacturer and people start making their own replacement parts, what does that mean?" he questioned.

The influx of consumer 3D printers has allowed thousands of people in Michigan and across the country to easily download blueprints from online databases and create a dizzying variety of plastic components, obviating the need for injection molding in many situations. The technology is already causing problems for companies looking to protect their intellectual property, but analyst projections suggest that small-scale 3D printing will become even more prevalent. A single firm, 3D Systems, is expected to report earnings of over $500 million this year, a 42 percent uptick compared to 2012. Experts say that there are a handful of other 3D printing companies predicted to post nine-figure sales figures as well.

Some businesses, such as East Coast startup Shapeways, custom print orders based on blueprints submitted by customers, a business model that has already resulted in a few copyright issues. The company has received complaints from firms claiming infringement, prompting them to remove several items from their database.

Shapeways and similar business have begun reviewing designs for possible infringement to avoid legal trouble and have yet to face a fully-fledged lawsuit. However, many experts believe that a high-profile, groundbreaking lawsuit is on the horizon as businesses continue to worry about the repercussions of the proliferation of 3D printers.

Source: Columbus Dispatch, "3-D print firms face growing legal fights" Olga Kharif and Susan Decker, Aug. 19, 2013

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