Have a look at this link here. For those of you not quite sure what they are looking at, you are witnessing the first legal (?) copying of a boardgame called Settlers of Catan.
The website lists files that someone with a 3D printer can download and send to their printer. Then out comes a Settlers of Catan boardgame without having to pay the inventor of the game anything!
This is the original game:
This is the printed game:
There is a buzz on the internet that 3D printers could result in the same issues that record companies are currently experiencing with copies being made of the music they should be receiving royalties for. But then for physical objects rather than music.
First point of debate though is whether printing the game for your own use is actually legal or not.
Suppose that I cut out the Settlers boardgame out of some cardboard that I have laying around, would I be in breach of Intellectual Property laws? I do not think so. So if I print the game on my 3D printer I am pretty sure that is legal also as long as I don’t sell the games that come off my printer. Another way to look at it is that I would sing a song of my favourite band all day long without paying the band any royalties. No issues with that in a legal sense!
Second point of debate is whether or not the person creating the files that are on the website is liable for any criminal charges. In the case of the Settlers Catan game the idea for the game is used to create it. And normally that would be in breach of IP laws. But only if he’d try and earn money with it. Suppose that I look up the patent for a brilliant gearing mechanism for my bike and use it to create it for myself, noone can sue me.. And if I happen to share my findings with someone who also makes a gear mechanism to use for himself, noone can complain about that. We are not making any money out of it..
Besides that, the point of patents is to get new inventions out in the public space while in return getting sole rights to it to commercialise the idea.
So it could be legal, but what about the person who came up with the idea? If anyone can just apply the idea for themselves without having to pay any money, is the idea worth anything still? It has always been a polarised debate whether or not patents are actually a good idea to spend money on. Whether or not they are just an expensive excercise with little return on investement. Perhaps the 3D printing era could diminish the value of patents to the point that they are not worth applying for? Companies will have to be on the ball and stay ahead of the game instead.
If anyone in the world can just print out your invention for free and fully legal for their own use, why would you want to pay good money to apply for a patent to protect it? Even worse.. why would you even bother sharing your invention with the rest of the world if you cannot protect it?