The game changing technology of 3D printing (a form of additive manufacturing – the creation of 3D objects by adding layer upon layer of materials) is becoming mainstream in our modern society. It has now entered our homes so that what was once a technology only available to large organisations and researchers is now available to hobbyists and smaller companies alike. You can easily pick up a 3D printer at your local Officeworks for under $1,000.
You may be surprised to know that this form of manufacturing is not a recent innovation. The first 3D printing related patents were granted in the 1980s. As early as 1981, Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published his account of a functional rapid prototyping system using photopolymers. In 1986, Charles “Chuck” Hull patented the stereolithography apparatus and 3D printing became even more visible in the late 1980s.
But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that 3D printing gained traction – even as it was still working out the bugs. Eventually, improvements in technology, lower price points, and the introduction of consumer models led to the proliferation of 3D printers we see today.
The recent speed of this development (coinciding with the expiry of some of the core patents) has led to exciting applications of this technology across the fashion, medical, construction, aerospace, food, automotive and spare part industries.
To give a general idea about how it all works, a 3D Printer can convert an electronic 3D model file (usually originating from a computer-aided design, commonly referred to as a CAD) into a physical 3D object. The 3D printer follows the instructions in the 3D model file to ‘print’ the object using a variety of techniques in a variety of materials (eg resins, steel, polyamide, ceramics, titanium or silver). These techniques typically involve the printer head releasing tiny squirts of liquefied materials on top of one another, built up layer by layer until the final product is created.
Alternatively, you can create a 3D model file by scanning a physical object using a 3D scanner. These files can then be converted to formats which are readable and printable by 3D printers, to replicate the originally scanned object.
The advantages to be gained from 3D printing are numerous. Prototypes required during the design and innovation process can be more cheaply and efficiently manufactured. This encourages and fosters creative and new designs to be explored by companies globally. Companies can more readily individualise products to meet the market’s increasing need for customisation and personalisation.
3D printing will dramatically affect the logistics industry by disrupting the supply chain and the need for warehousing and transport of a product which a customer can manufacture themselves. This creates efficiencies for businesses. For example, where once the harvesting of a crop might come to a grinding halt for a few weeks until a spare part for the harvester could be replaced (resulting in significant losses), today’s wheat farmer can order the 3D model file for the spare part online from the harvester manufacturer for a fee and print the spare part at his farm using his own 3D printer on the very same day.
One of its current disadvantages is that 3D printing is typically a slow process, with particularly small objects taking six to eight hours to print and larger objects taking days, depending on the process used. However, as technology progresses, this problem is gradually decreasing with the advent of different methods to increase the speed of production.
‘3D bioprinting’ is an astounding application of this technology in the medical space and is being used to grow biological materials such as bones, cartilage, tissues and potentially organs. Simply put, 3D bioprinting is carried out by layering bio-ink (stem cells) onto a 3D scaffold to grow the intended biological material. The advantage of using a person’s stem cells is that it reduces the chance of a transplant rejection by the body, and allows replacement of degenerative tissue with new healthy tissue. This technology is predicted to be used to help treat neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and schizophrenia. Soon we may be able to replace any part of the human anatomy which fails us – which means the prospects of extending the human lifespan are incredible!
3D Printing will however have a disruptive impact on intellectual property rights, including copyright, patents, designs and trade marks. One of the major queries facing the industry is whether the IP framework in Australia is adequate to protect the rights of those involved in 3D printing processes and distribution, and those whose products are 3D scanned or 3D printed.
Copyright protects the originality of a work and an author’s right to reproduce, publish or communicate it. 3D printing and scanning are likely to involve the creation and use of ‘artistic works’ (for example, architectural plans, engineering designs, sculptures, prototypes and 3D model files).
A 3D model file is likely to be protected under copyright law in a similar fashion to the way that copyright subsists in software, as long as there has been sufficient intellectual effort to create the file.
A copyright owner can therefore prevent a third party reproducing, publishing or communicating a ‘substantial part’ of a work through 3D printing or scanning. The copyright owner’s rights will also extend to the prevention of unauthorised communication of 3D model files (through uploading) to end users on file sharing platforms.
Patent protection gives a patent owner rights to exploit the patented invention, or authorise another person to do so. Where the invention is a product, exploitation means:
- making, hiring, selling or otherwise disposing of the product
- offering to make, sell, hire or otherwise dispose of the product,
- using or importing the product, or
- keeping the product for the purposes mentioned above.
- Where the invention is a method or process, exploitation means to use the method or process or to exploit the product resulting from such use.
Any unauthorised 3D printing (or ‘making’) of a patented product (for example, an inventive model drone) will constitute patent infringement by the person who carries out the printing of the drone, as will the subsequent sale of that drone to a third party. It is arguable whether the distribution of a 3D model file for the purposes of printing the drone via an online file sharing platform is an authorisation to the end user to exploit the patent. Therefore the uploader of the 3D model file and the platform may be deemed liable for contributory infringement of the patent by the Courts.
However, when it comes to a patented process of creation, if a product is 3D printed, a person is likely to bypass the patented process and evade infringement.
Finally, if there is a patent over the process of using a product, the unauthorised supply of a 3D printed product to a third party with instructions on how to use it in the claimed manner is likely to infringe the patent.
A registered design protects the appearance of a product by virtue of its visual features, including its shape, configuration, pattern and ornamentation. The owner is granted exclusive rights to make, offer to sell, sell, hire or commercially use a product embodying the design (or authorise a third party to do any of these things). If the product that is 3D printed is substantially similar to the registered design, the act of printing and any subsequent offer for sale, or the sale itself, will infringe the registered design.
For their protection, IP owners should ensure that any relevant designs are registered before a product is commercialised. Copyright which would otherwise exist in a design cannot be enforced where the copyright owner or its licensee has manufactured and sold products which embody that design.
Trade marks are signs used in business to indicate that the goods and/or services are provided by a particular trader. Trade marks can consist of words, images or both. A product that is printed in 3D bearing a trade mark owned by a third party may infringe that trade mark if it is registered in relation to the type of product printed. For example, if you decided to print a Qantas toy model airplane with the kangaroo device on the tail without authorisation, this conduct would infringe Qantas’ registered trade mark rights for the kangaroo device which specifically covers toy model planes.
Home Users and Hobbyists
Our IP infringement laws are targeted towards parties in the manufacturing supply chain – those that ‘exploit’ products which may be protected by copyright, patent, design and/or trade marks. However, 3D printing negates the need for an external supply chain by bringing manufacturing activities into the home of the end user.
Accordingly, the end user who prints the patented or copyright protected object is likely to be an infringer, subject to any carve outs in IP legislation for non-commercial personal use.
The law is likely to shift in an analogous manner to the shifts we saw in response to the disruption of the television, film and music industries by illegal file sharing of copyright protected material on websites such as Pirate Bay. ISPs may be ordered by the courts to block websites facilitating or allowing unauthorised downloads of 3D model files for 3D printing.
We may also see online 3D printing platforms with subscription models similar to Spotify and Netflix, allowing downloads of licensed and authorised 3D model files, with royalties being distributed to rights holders.
The disruptive influence of 3D printing cannot be underestimated, especially given the speed of its development. It is essential that those involved with 3D printing are aware of their rights and those of others, and particularly the need for protection.