Mainchain, a blockchain protocol developed by Vistory, ties users interested in a single 3D-printed object together because each users’ interest vests in the intellectual property (“IP”) that constitutes the object. Such interest is increasingly dominant in societies that rely on technology: information societies constitute intellectual property regimes to value ideas; additive manufacturing allows ideas to become objects with low capital cost and minimal state oversight. The solution, as this network has suggested, derives from software-as-a-service models, where private companies become regulators. Unlike cloud-based private regulators, Mainchain’s technology regulates access to IP by recognizing each user relating to a piece of IP. In so doing, Mainchain creates a regulatory framework by recording transactions on a piece of IP.
Mainchain’s innovation stems from the French army’s need for a secure contracting and sub-contracting system that preserves private companies’ IP. Military supply chains are changing as AM is introduced. The French army’s maintenance division sought Vistory’s input to guarantee suppliers’ intellectual property while allowing the army to print spare parts in the field. The company’s product, Mainchain, balanced the concerns of individual companies against the government’s national security interests. The competing interests that Mainchain addresses are precisely those that state-based international IP regulation needs to consider. Local interests, in this case, private companies, compete with broader market forces like governments, whose interest lies in freer IP markets.
These competing interests may be taken a step further with reference to market forces. The owner of the information will most likely always attempt to retain its monopoly on the information; users’ interest in information often aims to undercut monopolistic concerns. This dynamic undergirds general IP law, but patent and trademark regimes have upheld the dynamic reasonably well throughout the industrial eras. The manufacturing shift heralded by AM destabilizes the regime.
Governments grapple with the extension of monopolies over information. Europe, for example, uses a Circular Economy Action Plan, which incorporates a right to repair that pulls down monopolies on spare parts. This right creates a circular economic model. Companies selling goods in Europe must ensure that consumers receive prompt repairs. The scope of this right extends to 3D-printed objects, which fall under the rubric of “goods with digital elements”. If the sale of a product implies the sale of an AM design, that design is an element that must be maintained. Similarly, France passed legislation requiring publication of household appliances’ spare parts designs at a reasonable cost to consumers. This rule, set to enter into force on January 1, 2021, shines a light on the need for efficient IP protections that can work alongside consumers’ needs.
Smart contracts, like those used by Mainchain, balance these needs because they are strings of information that identify the rights and responsibilities of each person or entity registered within the blockchain. The registry does not create legally binding agreements. It is instead evidence of engagement with IP. This evidence confirms a design’s use according to the rights-holders’ specifications. It also enforces those specifications by only allowing users access to designs after meeting the owners’ standards.
Mainchain’s smart contracts extend traditional smart contract design by incorporating legal contracts as data within the blockchain. This innovation allows Mainchain to record the existence of obligations, thus regulating a piece of IP as it is encumbered with rights and responsibilities. In short, the smart contract design that Mainchain employs changes as users interact with the IP owners.
The scale of Vistory’s market for Mainchain is as-yet underappreciated. In 2019, 59 226 patents were filed for additive manufacturing IP in the United States and Europe. Patent litigation in the United States concerning AM IP between 2007 to 2018 remained relatively muted; the compounding number of AM patents in circulation suggests that conflict over IP may become more intense as the AM space becomes saturated. Vistory’s contribution to the space thoroughly documents IP use to lessen the potential for conflict while distributing IP rights and obligations.