Creating goods? Risky business
MR FERNANDO Sosa had no doubt that his 3-D-printed, sword-covered iPhone dock, inspired by hit HBO series Game Of Thrones, would become a top seller for his small manufacturing start-up.
Then he heard from HBO.
Defending a copyright on electronics featuring its show, HBO in February demanded that Mr Sosa halt sales on his website. He did, and gave more than a dozen customers refunds for the US$49.99 (S$63) item.
Mr Sosa is part of the swelling ranks of designers facing legal challenges for using consumer versions of 3-D printers once found only on factory floors.
"It's going to be a problem in the future," said Mr Sosa, co-owner of Nuproto in Orlando, Florida. "A lot of new products are going to come out, and big companies are going to squash the little companies."
Clashes are cropping up as 3-D printers become more affordable and websites such as Thingiverse.com post blueprints to help the machines build everything from toy tanks to replacement toaster parts.
The disputes are ushering in a new era in legal skirmishes over high-tech designs, threatening a printing market that is estimated by consulting firm Wohlers Associates to surge to US$10.8 billion by 2021, from US$2.2 billion last year.
Said Mr Darrell Mottley, a patent and trademark attorney at Banner & Witcoff in Washington: "The technology has got to a point where it's not that expensive. If you're a manufacturer and people start making their own replacement parts, what does that mean?"
3-D printers build an object by churning out thin layers of plastic, one on top of the next, following instructions from a computer-drawn blueprint. They eliminate the need for older manufacturing techniques, such as injection moulding. Designers can craft their own schematics or download patterns online.
The latest consumer machines from firms such as 3D Systems and Stratasys sell at retail prices of less than US$3,000, making the technology accessible to people who would not shell out more than 10 times that amount for industrial versions.
More than 45,000 low-end models have been sold in the past three years, said Mr Todd Grimm, a board member of Additive Manufacturing Users Group.
3D Systems is projected to post a 42 per cent surge in revenue this year to US$503.2 million, while sales at Stratasys are estimated to more than double to US$462.6 million this year, according to Bloomberg.
Mr Sosa uses a machine from Delta Micro Factory, which charges from US$899 to US$1,649, according to its website.
HBO is focused on protecting its copyrights, no matter how objects are produced, according to HBO spokesman Jeff Cusson.
"We're indifferent to the technology," Mr Cusson said. "If you are going to infringe on our copyright, we are going to take steps to prevent you from doing so."
As 3-D printing becomes more ubiquitous, websites that help people profit from their creations are being asked to remove some designs, said Mr Pete Weijmarshausen, chief executive of New York-based Shapeways.
The company, which prints made-to-order products based on blueprints uploaded by users, has had five requests to remove items so far this year, about as many as it received last year.
Mr Weijmarshausen is on the defensive to keep that number from climbing.
Many more legal disputes have been prevented by his team of engineers who vet every design, making sure nothing violates copyrights, trademarks or patents. If it raises a flag, Shapeways takes it down, he said.
So far, 3-D-printing disputes have been playing out as cease-and-desist orders - no lawsuits have been filed.
Mindful of potential litigation, several start-ups are developing software to protect designs distributed on 3-D-printing sites.
Start-up Authentise is developing SendShapes.com, which will stream instructions directly to 3-D printers, eliminating file downloads as a way to curtail the type of file-sharing that became rampant in the music industry.
Another start-up, Sweden-based 3DBurrito.com, is developing software that would safeguard designs sold in its marketplace. The company plans to negotiate licensing agreements to sell blueprints from corporations that sell everything from toys to movies.
CEO Max Foderus said in an interview: "It's important that they adopt this technology and work with marketplaces like ours to offer consumers a legal alternative."
In the meantime, some corporations are embracing 3-D printers, as long as the machines are not being used to produce objects for sale.
Lego, for example, is well aware that its fans use 3-D printers to create new bricks to enhance its sets. One popular design on Thingiverse.com enables kids to adapt Lego bricks so they can connect to wooden train tracks made by Swedish toymaker Brio.
While personal use of these hybrid toys is fine, their sale may cross a legal line, a spokesman for Lego said in an e-mail statement.
He said: "We will definitely want to pursue infringements as and when we see them, in order to ensure the protection of our brand and, ultimately, the consumers."
Nokia, the mobile-handset manufacturer, goes even further in sanctioning 3-D printing.
At the Mobile World Congress earlier this year, the company used a MakerBot machine to print custom cases for its Lumia 820 phone.
In a blog post interview in January, Nokia executive John Kneeland touted 3-D printers as a tool that may one day let consumers customise devices.
As he wrote in a blog post: "You want a waterproof, glow-in-the-dark phone with a bottle-opener and a solar charger? Someone can build it for you - or you can print it yourself!"