3D printing- the next challenge for IP?

3D printing is a technological advance that has been getting a lot of press recently due to the sense of excitement about the possibilities it might hold. The implications of this advance are being speculated as huge, with the BBC asking if it will spark a ‘new industrial revolution’, The Economist announcing the benefits for third world countries, and others hoping that it might soon have promising implications for the medical industry.

Although 3D printing has been accessible to engineers and designers for a number of years, it has recently become much more affordable to the general public due to a decrease in the cost of technology.

What exactly is 3D printing?

3D printing works much like 2D printing, but in this case it enables solid objects, which otherwise are limited to mass production, to be printed and produced on an individual basis through the use of computer-aided design. These printers work by building an object layer by very thin layer, and in this way building an entire object through stacking these multiple layers of material.

3D printers are designed to enable inventors to make ideas, which would otherwise never go beyond anything more than a concept, into something substantial. The labs could mean that the power of production is no longer limited to the big businesses, but rather could be passed into the hands of the consumers themselves.

Although currently 3D printing can only print objects using one type of material at a time and can only use certain types of material, such as plastic, the future of 3D printing is looking at being able to recreate electronical devices through printing multi-material components.

What will 3D printing mean for the law?

However, alongside any technological advance, a host of legal difficulties generally also tends to arise. So, with production made more easily accessible, what implications will this have on the law? And specifically how can intellectual property be protected?

Although the idea behind 3D printing is to enable people to make their own ideas into an actuality, if 3D printing does become the way of the future, designs produced by other companies and manufacturers can be used to print certain items, and there is also the fear that in some cases they might be illegally replicated. Michael Weinberg, a senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge, warns that ‘printing in 3D is a disruptive technology that raises a lot of intellectual property issues’

The potential for piracy

The fear is that anything in the world will be able to replicated and reproduced without license- from iPhones and computer parts to chairs, shoes and much more. The question is- could the manufacturing industry go the same way as the music and film industry? Will they have to start worrying about BitTorrent sites leaking copies of design files for people to print cheaply and easily in the convenience of their own homes?

The backlash could lead to manufacturing companies seeking more restrictive protections on their products to prevent illegal copying. Weinberg warns that the implications could mean that ‘useful objects could be protected for decades after creation. Mechanical and functional innovation could be frozen by fears of massive copyright infringement lawsuits. Furthermore, articles that the public is free to recreate and improve upon today (such as a simple mug of bookend) would become subject to inaccessible and restrictive licensing agreements’

So could an invention that is designed to produce innovation really lead to the stifling and diminishing of just the very thing it seeks to promote?

A Possible Solution

However, there have been some moves to help fight against piracy on manufactured goods which should avoid a decrease in innovation and restrictive protections. The BBC announced last month that a patent has now been developed that would act much like DRM did on games and music. It will embed copy controls on 3D design files to ensure that they can only be printed by those with the correct authorization.

Whilst this may provide some solution, DRM for music and games by no means eliminated piracy, and proved hugely unpopular.

How do you protect a physical object?

Aside from an anxiety about piracy- another complication is that there is no set intellectual property protection that completely protects physical objects. Whilst there are some steps that can be taken to protect a physical object, none of these will actually protect the mold and shape of a physical object.

Trademarks protect names and therefore any logos on an object, designs protect the look of the object, patents protect how things work, and copyright might protect artistic patterns, but does not cover the actual physical object or the idea it expresses.

Another problems is that 3D printing also does not just allow objects to be replicated, but also allows for them to be altered making it much more unclear how and when a product’s intellectual property has been infringed.

What Next?

For now 3D printing has yet to become mainstream and it will probably be a while before every household owns a 3D printer alongside their 2D one- but these are some implications to bear in mind. This looks to be yet another area where the law will have to adapt to catch up to the ever changing world of technology.

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