Imagine you’re someone who has just launched a brand new television cartoon series. Your series is receiving critical acclaim, it’s developing a loyal following, and you’re even in talks to start producing merchandise based on your IP. You might think, “I own this IP and no one else can make merchandise for it.”
From a legal standpoint, you might be right. But from the “is it possible?” standpoint, it’s now easier than ever to replicate a product thanks to home 3D printers, where creating an identical piece of your merchandise can be as simple as downloading a plan and clicking “Print.”
According to The Economist, over 420,000 desktop 3D printers were sold last year. The publication took a look at the same problem I described — the impact of 3D printers on intellectual property — to see how companies are responding to these very clear cases of infringement and found something surprising. Rather than going after those who upload plans and print their own products for free, many companies are fully embracing 3D printing as an additional channel for fan outreach and promotion.
Take SyFy for example. The science-fiction-focused cable TV channel has taken the “can’t-beat-em-join-em” approach to 3D printers and the fans who use them. The network has uploaded collections of 3D models from some of its popular TV shows like Dark Matter and The Expanse, enabling viewers to print models of helmets, spaceships, logos, and more.
Toy maker Hasbro might seem like it has a lot to lose when it comes to the effect 3D printers could have on its business. The company decided against cease-and-desists and takedown notices, instead opting to create an online marketplace where creators can upload 3D models based on the My Little Pony franchise and receive a cut of whatever sells. It’s an innovative approach to solving a particularly difficult issue and ensures Hasbro has a way to earn from its IP while still giving fans the freedom to create.
There are still some entertainment industry stalwarts who prefer inch-long shuffles rather than giant leaps. Disney’s vast catalog of intellectual property ranges from Mickey Mouse to Star Wars, and the company isn’t quite ready to give 3D modelers a free run at those iconic brands just yet. The company does sell its own 3D printing plans online, however, so those with a desktop 3D printer at home can still get their Disney fix. Just don’t expect community-made items anytime soon.
It’ll be very interesting to see how companies approach the use of their IP as 3D printers in the home become more commonplace. On one hand, companies do have the need to protect their intellectual property and enforce unauthorized use. On the other hand, playing whack-a-mole with copyright notices will only become more difficult as 3D printers proliferate.
The music industry transformed its entire model to meet the reality of MP3s and the ever-changing times. Owners of other types of intellectual property may need to do the same for 3D printers very soon.