Copyright law is likely to play an important role in additive manufacturing. The CAD files steering the actual printing process should enjoy copyright protection. To conclude, businesses manufacturing and selling copyrighted objects should have enforceable copyrights. Moreover, additive manufacturing is likely to face a fair share of misuse of trade secret claims. Nowadays, trade secrets protect a variety of proprietary IP, and many businesses have already chosen trade secret law as means of protecting their innovations outside the patent system. One major advantage of trade secret protection is that litigation is usually not as costly and burdensome as other forms of IP litigation.
Some scholars have argued that, focus should be concentrated on CAD files rather than the printed object or component. With copyright law the situation is easier: digital files themselves infringe. Unlike in patent law, they are copies of the work. To constitute an infringement, a tangible version of an invention needs to be made. Nonetheless, if the object subject to infringement is a “click-away” for someone in possession of a CAD file and a 3D printer, the author opines that the CAD files themselves ought to be viewed as digital patent infringement, identical to copyright law. It has been argued that, when CAD files of patented items are sold, this should constitute infringement. The CAD file has specific value due to the patented innovation and therefore, the seller is appropriating the economic value of the invention. Nonetheless, only possession of a CAD file of a patented object should not constitute infringement. What the patent system does is to urge others to design around patents that exist, and the design process itself is often done virtually. If the CAD file itself would constitute infringement, the entire patent system would forfeit the beneficial improvement efforts.
The full extent of the impact of additive manufacturing remains to be seen. As precedents from the music and film industry indicate, the more accessible content is made for consumers, the less likely they are to turn to illegal downloads. Moreover, the rights holders need to understand the technology and the existing options for the protection of their IP rights or else, risk being left behind in the phenomenon that could constitute the next industrial revolution. With infringers, rather than focusing on the actual infringing objects, it would be more beneficial to concentrate on the CAD files. As case law around the subject is still lacking, it is unclear how IP issues around additive manufacturing are to be tackled in the courts of different jurisdictions. In any event, additive manufacturing will pose many legal challenges to current IP laws, especially patent regimes. It is possible that one of the greatest technological and revolutionary innovations of our time may ultimately undermine a key engine of innovation: the patent system.