LEO Lane, an Israeli firm that offers intellectual property protection to the additive manufacturing industry, uses algorithms to regulate the use of clients’ designs. The company responds to a growing concern about safeguarding intellectual property across the AM sector, which is defined by its decentralization and the consequent transmission of electronic data. Electronic data is inherently difficult to regulate: it does not recognize borders. Enforcing copyright, trademark or patent infringement involves costly legal proceedings; LEO Lane designs its service to prevent litigation.
LEO Lane’s service
LEO protects its clients’ privacy and rights by only requiring a critical piece of a design, which is removed from the encoded limited edition object (hence the term ‘LEO’). The client retains the full LEO file, while LEO Lane’s cloud retains the comparatively small missing piece. The client’s product requires that piece to function correctly. LEO communicates the missing design element from its cloud service to a local printer, which completes the design, thus authorizing replication. The client can then count the number of times that a product is printed and bill the printer accordingly.
Printers, moreover, can easily use LEO Lane’s software on most available print systems. LEOs are relatively large files that can be read in various printer formats. They are loaded to the printer under the client’s control; LEO Lane supplies the small missing piece from its cloud. LEO Lane’s software is compatible with partner systems from Materialise, SAP, Accenture, Shapeways, GE and Autonomous Manufacturing.
LEO’s software also secures product design against human error. The LEO encodes design specifications. These details are immutable on the printer-side: the designer can, for example, specify permissible material types, compatible AM technology, permitted scaling and the number of items printed in a run from a single LEO file. These restrictions give designers control over all aspects of production. Designers can monetize their intellectual property with ease.
A wider look at industrial regulation
The effect of LEO’s cloud service is to use international software-as-service-agreements as a form of regulation. This approach is endemic in the media industry, and SaaS contracts have grown in lockstep with the industry. The public cloud services market has grown more than four-fold since 2009. It is expected to grow by another third between now and 2022. The AM sector, however, has not yet taken SaaS up to facilitate knowledge transfer.
SaaS has the potential to regulate large swaths of an industry because terms of service are contracts that bind users to companies’ conditions. These conditions become the heart of regulation, while companies become gatekeepers that adjudicate compliance and disputes. Facebook and Twitter are examples of large companies able to regulate large user bases; LEO’s approach is more personable, but the concept at work is similar. The contract that opens users to use LEO’s software for knowledge transfer requires users to submit to LEO’s rules.
This kind of requirement is, to be sure, reasonable in a commercial exchange. Taking a broader view of the requirement’s effect on an industry suggests a push-and-pull between SaaS providers and clients. Providers channel legal and moral rules into the industry, which ensures a measure of fair play. Clients governed by these schemes may demand, much like citizens of a republic, different rules to suit an industry or segment. Providers with a sufficiently large client base go a step further to define their industries’ knowledge sharing through their rules.
The difficulty, if one must be pointed out, in SaaS regulation is that legal agreements are only vehicles for regulation. The software implements companies’ rules, which means that companies must be particularly attuned to clients’ concerns.
Contracts, especially international contracts, move business forward. When enough contracts are administered by a single company, the company becomes a focal point for business interests. These points frequently arise in the provision of software or computing platforms. They are, to boot, an indispensable part of the AM ecosystem. Decentralized knowledge transfer needs flexible gatekeepers to guarantee property rights and quality.
LEO Lane is an example of a flexible gatekeeper. Its cloud service builds privacy, discretion and control into intellectual property distribution. In so doing, it curries favor with industry partners like its printing partner systems. As the industry grows, LEO and other service providers will begin to serve as points of reference for industry protection standards. Clients may notice this movement; governments and international organizations like the World Intellectual Property Organization may also at some point take heed to craft more formal standards.
This article is part of a series on law and additive manufacturing. If you or your company has experience with this or other legal issues, please tell us about your experience by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
*October 28, 2020 — This article has been modified from its original version to amend some technical inaccuracies.*