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The Impact of 3D Printing on Intellectual Property

From the Printware Blog on Friday 10th February 2012 in 3D Printing, Consumer Advice

If you've been keeping up with developments in the acronym-laden world of internet piracy you'll be familiar with terms such as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. As a result, you'll also have heard a lot about intellectual property and the problems of safeguarding it in the digital age. So, firstly, what is intellectual property? According to the UK Copyright Service, intellectual property, or IP, refers to 'creative work that can be treated as an asset or physical property' and falls into four main areas; copyright, trademarks, design rights and patents.

Copyright applies to work which is recorded in some way such as literary, artistic, musical and dramatic work, trademark deals with unique devices like logos which identify products or organisations and patents cover inventions or industrial processes. Design rights give protection to the creators of 3D objects and cover the 'shape, texture, colour, materials used, contours and ornamentation' of an object, as defined by the UK Copyright Service. The overall impression of the object should be different from any existing design in order for it to qualify as new. The person who created the design usually owns the design rights and can take legal action if it is copied without permission.

Most of the recent controversy surrounding IP and the internet has focused on copyright infringement, mainly with regards to illegal copying and sharing of music, films and games. Governments, law enforcement agencies and many copyright owners have been devoting a great deal of time and energy to stamping out internet piracy but there could be fresh battles just around the corner. The rise of affordable and practical 3D printers means that we could soon be faced with another IP minefield and the inevitable arguments over design rights.

As discussed in our recent articles, 3D Printing at Home and A 3D Printer for the Price of a Colour Laser Printer it is now possible to buy 3D printers for home use. Until now, they've been too large, expensive and complex for casual and unskilled users but the arrival of the MakiBox A6 is set to change that. According to makers Makible, the A6 is the most affordable, compact and easy to use 3D printer yet and, at just £190, may soon become a common household gadget. For around 30 years or so, 3D printers have been used chiefly by designers and engineers to build low-cost prototypes but now almost anyone can create a design, or download an existing one, and print it on a 3D printer.

Creating your own design or legally downloading someone else's clearly isn’t going to cause a problem but if you copy an existing design without permission, there could be legal implications. Design rights work in a similar way to copyright in that they are automatic and do not require the designer to register them. Effectively, once you’ve created your 3D object, you have design rights over it. This means that you can take legal action against someone if they copy your design without permission and this is where it starts to get tricky.

A design is only infringed if it is copied; independently created designs are not infringements and it could be difficult, in some cases impossible, to prove that a design was copied, not created. The other main issue would be proving that you came up with a design first. Although design rights are automatic, they need to be registered to give maximum protection against infringement. Once a design is registered, you retain exclusive rights and protection for up to 25 years. Unregistered designs are protected for no more than 10 years and, if a design is unregistered, it can be harder to prove ownership. It is possible to register a design with the UKCS in the same way that you'd register a copyright; confusingly, this doesn’t mean that it’s a registered design but it does give you some recourse in the event of a legal dispute.

So, what does all this mean to the home user? If you're printing small numbers of 3D objects for your own use, probably not much. Even if your designs bear an uncanny resemblance to a household brand, it's unlikely that anyone will even notice, let alone care. However, if you start churning out 3D-printed goods and, for example, selling them on eBay, things could get a lot more complicated. We could start to see 'piracy' of manufactured goods on the same scale as music and film piracy, with all the inherent problems of enforcement across international boundaries.

Disputes may prove difficult, if not impossible to resolve and, even if design infringement can be proved, how can the designers rights be enforced? What can you do, for example, if someone in China starts mass-producing and selling a product identical to yours? The authorities have had limited success in stopping internet pirates thus far – for every Pirate Bay that gets taken down, there are dozens, even hundreds of sites to take its place. There's no reason to suspect that efforts to clamp down on design rights infringements would be any more successful, which leaves us with an interesting question: Are the days of Intellectual Property numbered? We're used to the idea that people have rights over the things that they create but, when infringement is so easy and enforcement is so difficult, it may be time to re-evaluate our approach to IP – whether we like it or not.

by Anthony Morgan

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