The proliferation of three-dimensional (3D) printing has led to unique challenges and novel issues in the context of intellectual property law and, in particular, patent law.

Due to the protracted nature of the legal system, modern innovation and technological advancements always seem to outpace the law. 3D printing is no exception. As 3D technology continues to expand and grow, so too will the body of law regulating it.

One of the unique issues facing 3D printing technology is that the 3D printing process for creating solid 3D objects uses digital models, such as CAD (computer-aided design) files, as the basis to print the objects. As a result, in addition to potential copyright issues that could arise from using a CAD file, there also may be patent and trademark issues.

For example, similar to the way in which a person can utilize a regular printer to print copies of a copyrighted book or photograph, the user of a 3D printer can print a patented invention. In fact, it is easy to reproduce a product simply by downloading a CAD file and using it to print a 3D object. Because CAD files are digital, they can be shared and downloaded via the Internet, just like music, photographs, books or movies.

In that event, just like a book author may seek to hold the book printer liable for copyright infringement, a patent owner can seek to hold the user of the 3D printer liable for patent infringement. It may, however, be extremely difficult to track, identify and prove infringement.

This is reminiscent of the legal challenges faced by the music industry, when record labels embarked on a campaign to prevent the illegal download and sharing of digital music files in violation of copyright law. Now, similar to the way in which an Internet user that downloads (and/or shares) photographs, music files, books and videos may engage in copyright infringement, a person can download a CAD file and use it to print the 3D product, potentially engaging in copyright and patent infringement. And, if the patent owner registered the object as a three-dimensional shape mark, then making a 3D object and using it in commerce would constitute trademark infringement.

It is important for patent holders (and the owners of CAD files) to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with 3D printing issues, such as patent, copyright and trademark registrations, vigilant monitoring of the marketplace for infringing 3D-printed products, entering into licensing agreements and enacting internal security measures.