Three-dimensional (3D) printing is a technology that builds 3D objects by creating layers of material one on top of the other until the product is ready. The process is called additive manufacturing (AM), and it differs from traditional manufacturing processes in that it does not use molding and casting.
3D printing is likely to be increasingly available in manufacturing processes. It is innovative and has developed into a set of increasingly accessible technologies that can create products and parts that can be sold to the public. 3D printing is still slow compared to mass production, but it allows for flexibility and customization, and sometimes no assembly of complex parts. It can help cut logistics costs, and shorten manufacturing cycles.
Additive manufacturing is already used in diverse industries such as medicine, aerospace, and fashion. As the range of printable materials and designs continues to expand, 3D printing will have more applications in numerous industries. As it continues to advance, 3D printing is likely to affect intellectual property rights, including copyright, patents, and design rights.
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3D intellectual property challenges
As 3D printers become more advanced and more common, it becomes technically possible and much easier to print products without gaining the right holder’s authorization, in violation of intellectual property laws.
3D printing makes it so much easier to copy and reproduce products. All you need to do is to download a file that holds the instructions for the printer to reproduce an object. You may also be able to do it by scanning a physical object through a 3D scanner. Since they are digital, files can be shared quickly, easily, and globally.
Many were worried about large scale copyright infringement due to the technology, but so far, it has not led to what happened in the music industry with Napster file sharing. Still, the threat is real and is likely to increase with the advancement in 3D printing technology.
The issue does not only apply to volume production by means of 3D printing. Small scale manufacturers can use 3D printers to reproduce a patented invention they need for their business, making it difficult for the patent owner to be aware of the infringement or have evidence of manufacturing of the 3D-printed products. Even when aware, litigation is usually lengthy and costly.
Also, most intellectual property laws have exception for private use. This can present a problem if the product has been copied without the consent of the rights holder, the CAD file was uploaded to a website, and the consumer then downloaded it to create the product for private use.
3D printing and intellectual property protection
3D printing makes it possible to copy almost any object, including intellectual property protected products. Copying is hard to spot and prove. Yet, there are ways for IP owners to gain protection under current IP protection laws.
Copyright protects the work and the creator’s sole right to reproduce it. In the US, the existing takedown system of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act can be applied to 3D printing. To protect their rights, intellectual property owners need to create copyrighted files of the products they wish to protect. They can also learn from piracy laws regarding digital file-sharing that ban the illegal duplication and distribution of copyrighted files.
Industrial design rights protect the ornamental and aesthetic appearance of an object, its shape and form, and if copied are protected under current IP laws.
Patent owners can go after those who facilitate patent infringement, such as websites that sell or share the files that hold the instructions for the 3D printers to create a patented product or invention. They can do so in the US since the Patent Act allows patent holders to hold liable “whoever actively induces infringement of a patent.”
3D printing raises questions and calls for discussion and answers. One question regards the possible liability of the sellers of 3D files. If such files are covered by a patent than the sellers essentially offer the means to use a protected right without authorization. Maybe liability can even be applied to sellers of 3D printers. Another question is whether patent law should expand to grant protection against the uploading of the product file onto an online sharing platform or the downloading of a copy of a digital file of a product even before using the file to copy it.
Many compare 3D printing files to the illegal downloading of movies or music and refer to Napster peer-to-peer file sharing. Anti-piracy laws in regards to file sharing and downloading is relevant. However, there are also essential differences. 3D printers allow anyone to use pirated design files and turn them into the protected product.
The ability to move from intangible to tangible creates an overlap between copyrights and patent rights. Under existing IP laws, this means that innovators should seek patent protection together with copyright protection for the same new product. In addition, to prevent the unauthorized printing of their invention, innovators should consider seeking patent protection for the 3D printing method of their products.
Understanding the potential of 3D printing, countries can create systems that promote its development and application. Intellectual property laws are significant in that sense. 3D printing technology affects IP law: patent law, design law, copyrights. The fundamental question is whether current IP law is adequate for addressing the technology and providing IP protection, or should it be reformed?
In many important ways, current IP laws protect IP owners in cases of 3D printing, but there are still issues to be resolved.
Technological advancements cause disruptions to intellectual property protection.
3D printing allows us to manufacture a product almost anywhere. The ability to share object-creating files creates a separation between the information and the actual product, and makes it easy to violate IP rights. 3D printing is yet another path to intellectual property abuse.
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What is 3D printing?
3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing, is the technology that allows for automated building of a three-dimensional object by adding material until the product or part is ready.
What materials are used in 3D printing?
A wide variety of materials are used for 3D printing, and they continue to expand. Some examples are plastics, metals, ceramics, and glass.
How does 3D printing work?
3D printers read a file that instructs the printer how to build the product or part. The printer uses the chosen material to create layers one on top of the other until the product emerges.
Do existing IP laws protect from 3D printing?
Protecting a part or a product from 3D printing without authorization is generally covered by current IP laws through copyright, industrial design, patent, or trademark protection. However, as with any new and disruptive technology, there are gaps that should be covered, and new issues to examine and clarify.
What is the IP threat of 3D printing?
3D printing makes it easier and cheaper to create imitations and replicas.
Is a 3D digital file protected under copyright law?
Many believe the answer is yes, just like software is protected by copyright law.
What 3D printing is an IP infringement?
The commercial production of IP protected objects, such as a patented product, will most likely constitute patent infringement, as well as the sale of the infringing product.