3D printing is an exciting technology which is evolving rapidly within many different industries. The emergence of high-performance printers at a low cost has made the technology more accessible to consumers. But, it is crucial to consider the potential implications that this can have for intellectual property (IP) law. This article will discuss the IP laws that affect 3D printing and what protection you will require if you undertake 3D printing.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a process where a digital file is exported to 3D software, which then creates or ‘prints’ a solid object. 3D printers can print with a range of materials, including metals and plastics. The printing process involves laying down layers of the chosen material in succession until an object forms.

3D printing is leading incredible advancements in many fields, including medicine. Bioprinting is the process where a 3D printer prints living cells to create human tissue-like structures. These tissue-like structures provide the opportunity to test drugs and perform clinical trials without using real people. Many scientists are now aiming to use 3D printing to create replacement organs out of the patient’s own cells if they need an organ transplant.

You must first create a 3D model of an object before you can print it. You can create this model either through:

  • a 3D scanner to scan an existing object; or
  • using 3D modelling software.

3D scanning is the most straightforward method of obtaining a 3D model for printing. However, it also may create issues if IP infringements as you might be scanning an object that was created by someone else. 3D modelling software also creates its own IP challenges when determining who legally owns the IP of the object.

Advantages of 3D Printing

1. Reduced Overheads

You can reduce overheads when using 3D printing methods either within your business or through an external company. While designing and developing products will always come at a cost, these costs will become less restrictive as 3D printing continues to get more popular.

2. Avoids Expensive Prototypes

If your business is constantly designing and innovating new products, the creation of prototypes at each stage can be expensive. 3D printing allows for much greater ease in creating one-off designs and prototypes at much lower production costs.

3. Wider Production Options

3D printing might allow your business to utilise a wider variety of production options, including different materials. This means that you can innovate with a variety of materials that you would not have previously been able to access.

4. Greater Complexity of Designs

Complex designs can often be out of reach for startups or small businesses without access to large scale production. 3D printing supports the development and creation of incredibly complex designs that are low cost and easier to create.

Which Types of IP Are Relevant?

3D printing can affect almost every form of IP law, including:

  • copyright;
  • designs; and
  • patents.

The nature of 3D printing means that it is possible to copy almost any creation without gaining consent from the relevant IP owners. This creates many issues surrounding infringement.

Copyright

Copyright is an automatic right that creators have over their work to exclusively use those works and determine how others may use it. 3D printing provides you with the ability to copy almost anything. This means that upholding copyright protection is very important. If you copy and print an object without the permission of its creator, you could face consequences under copyright law.

Patents

A patent is a protection that you can register over an invention. If you patent an invention, it provides you with the exclusive right to sell it.

However, if you print a patented invention without the consent of the patent owners, you could face legal action. You should make sure that you do not copy an essential element of the invention that is covered by the patent.

Infringement

As 3D printing enables a large audience to widely produce goods, the risk of IP infringement increases. Greater issues arise if you do not realise that your IP is not protected. To ensure the protection of your products, you might want to ‘tag’ 3D printer files with unique codes. These codes will assist with monitoring the use of your design. If you own IP, it is your responsibility to enforce and defend your IP rights.

Personal Use

Hobbyists using 3D printers for personal use will generally utilise more affordable home printers. These can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. In comparison, businesses requiring large scale printing might need to invest in printers that cost over $100, 000.

In most circumstances, the personal use of a trade mark or copyrighted material is not considered an infringement of IP rights. However, if a hobbyist started using 3D printing for commercial gain and was breaching someone’s IP rights, the IP rights holder could commence legal proceedings for copyright infringement.

Overseas, some countries are considering imposing a fee for anyone who undertakes private 3D printing. This aims to place more emphasis on the protection of IP rights. However, charging these fees could also put a stop to the advancements of 3D printing. Therefore, if this fee halts innovation from 3D printing, it may not be worth it for the sake of copyright protection.

Issues With the Current Laws

The complicated technology associated with 3D printing raises some interesting questions relating to IP Law. Two key issues are who owns the relevant IP and how IP infringement should be dealt with.

Ownership

Legal questions arise when considering who legally owns the rights over a 3D printed design. If the work is not original and is a printed version of someone else’s design, then the rights will belong to the original designer. If, however, it is a printing of original work, the different people involved in the creation of the work may all have rights over it.

For example, someone may have been involved in the conception of the idea, someone else may have modelled the design, and another person may have printed the work.

Here, the current law isn’t clear about who retains rights over a work that has been created by multiple people. If you are thinking of using a 3D printer, you should have contracts in place with others involved in the process that outline who is the owner of the IP.

Infringement

So far, there has not been any cases surrounding 3D printing and IP in Australian courts. Therefore, as 3D printing becomes more widely accessible over the coming years, the legal questions surrounding this area of law should be clarified.

Many commentators suggest that music downloading faced these same infringement issues for many years until subscription services became popular. These services significantly reduced illegal downloading as they made music more accessible and less expensive.

3D printing may continue along with the same evolution with the creation of printing subscription models. These models could offer protection for IP rights holders and allow users to print for a subscription fee.

Key Takeaways

3D printing is an emerging technology that is advancing a wide range of industries. But, it also poses a wide range of risks for IP rights holders. You should ensure that your IP is protected and that you are clear on who owns the relevant IP of any designs that are being 3D printed. Ensuring that your contracts clearly outline who owns the relevant IP can also assist you in protecting your IP. If you have any questions about IP ownership or need to draft any contracts concerning IP, contact LegalVision’s IP lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.

About LegalVision: LegalVision is a tech-driven, full-service commercial law firm that uses technology to deliver a faster, better quality and more cost-effective client experience.
Talia Admiraal

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