Honda Forced 3D-Printing Enthusiast to Back Off of Their IP: Is There a Better Way to Make It Right?

Many enthusiasts use a 3D models database called Printables to demonstrate and share their works. The community creates compatible replacements, add-ons, or simple items people deem useful for others. Naturally, there are many adjustments made for various car models. Usually, those are simple things like telephone or cup holders, as well as other small accessories. Mostly car producers view them as customization products made by buyers and pay little attention to them.

But recently, Honda, the world-famous car manufacturer from Japan, started sending takedown notices to the database, demanding to delete any 3D works associated with the brand. Honda’s lawyers got through a lot of trouble to patent not only things that have “Honda” written on them, but also all shapes and forms of the cars’ parts. So the company’s lawyers made tremendous work to track down and mark for deletion all the content at least somehow resembling parts of the cars.

The Printables team had to work hard for some time, deleting and “hiding” content on their website, thus causing public outrage among the users, who had spent many hours developing CAD files for Honda cars. As of now, the platform tries to figure out whether Honda really takes their IP this seriously or is there a law firm doing something to bill Honda the hours. 

IP issues and 3D printing: what is the best course of action?

As the 3D printing technology gets more accessible and more popular, it is expected that by 2030 there will be more than 21 million 3D printers in the market. We have already approached the topic when discussing the importance of 3D printing in medicine. 

As it opens huge perspectives in any industrial sector, providing users with the means to produce anything as long as CAD files are available, here comes the grey IP zone. 

In the automobile market, in particular, being able to print and install a broken part of a car is a great time and money-saver for any car service. And supplying distributors with manufacturer-approved CAD files for such parts would do well too. Customers wouldn’t have to wait weeks for necessary parts to arrive and could easily customize cars’ accessories as they please. But if the technology gets so widespread, this will start a tide of numerous chop-shops, capable of printing or altering any part.

And this is surely bad for IP. This thought is probably what made Honda react so harshly in the situation described, even though they had to spend a lot of time and effort to do so. The effectiveness of such measures is also questionable. 

But is there a way to protect IP and make customization via 3D printing safe and user-friendly?

How can blockchain help?

Digitization and shared economy make companies take IP protection very seriously. Unless you actively protect it, the IP becomes “open” for everyone. Trying to reclaim it when literally everyone has access to it is virtually impossible. 

In the Honda case, the company was, probably, overdoing it, as there is nothing wrong with customers doing whatever they want with their cars until it is safe for them and the people around them. 

This is why Ford decided not to counter it but to lead the way in terms of customization.

The company offered approved CAD files for accessories that may be used in their cars. This move saved many hours of work for enthusiasts and at the same time, a person printing it can be sure that it will fit their car and it is absolutely safe

But for some people there is always the temptation to push a design further, altering IP-sensitive parts and improperly using them even under a trademark. This can cause serious damage to a corporation's brand not to mention unpredictable consequences for those using it. 

Blockchain is the solution to this problem as the technology could help in establishing and managing ownership rights, and licensing through smart contracts.

Imagine the picture where the CAD IP owners can register their IP rights, track and trace how every CAD file is being used, license and sublicense CAD intellectual property to multiple parties and enjoy licensing fees from every re-use of the file or every 3d printing event.

Blockchain can bring trust, transparency, order, and fair remuneration to the IP owners while giving the creator community freedom to co-create.