Is there a new era beginning with the availability of low-cost 3D printers? Not so long ago it was unimaginable that people could print products they needed by themselves. They used to have to go to the supermarket or order them on the Internet. Nowadays, 3D printers are affordable for everyone and make such things simple and commonplace. Consumers can print three-dimensional objects at home, everything from phone cases to jewelry and ceramics.

3D printing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.1 With a 3D printer, it is possible to print everything a consumer might want and even to copy already existing items. Not every item which is produced in a 3D printer will be the result of the printing individual’s own ideas and creativity. On the contrary, the object’s plan may be downloaded and printed from another person’s original design, or a copy can be created from an already existing commercial product. Basically, there are two common possibilities for the source of a copy: The first source is the Internet, where plans for a particular object can be downloaded. The second source is a 3D scanner, which is able to scan a physical object and transfer the resulting file to the 3D printer.2 These methods touch on important IP rights of various individuals. Thus, the question arises as to how 3D printing and IP rights protection can be combined.

There are four main classes of IP rights that can be infringed by printing with a 3D printer: copyrights, patents, design rights and trademarks.

  1. Copyrights

The main problem with 3D printing related to copyrights is the possibility of extensive personal manufacturing of copyrighted objects independent of established markets in ways that cannot be detected, prevented or controlled.3

Generally, the principles of copyright infringement apply to 3D printing as they apply to any other copyrighted material. Nevertheless, not all copyright laws are clear about the degree to which 3D designs and software are protectable and about the question of which acts may constitute infringement, and if someone copies and distributes a 3D printed copy of a copyrighted object, a copyrighted CAD file or copyrighted software, the copyright owner is likely to sue for infringement.

It is also likely that the same thing that happened with file-shared music and movies may happen with copyrighted objects, as home 3D printers have become more prevalent. Although 3D printing of copyrighted objects at home may constitute an infringement, the copyright will become increasingly impractical or impossible to enforce.4 Technically, a consumer who copies a work by printing an already existing object will be liable for copyright infringement unless the consumer has permission from the copyright owner or only privately uses the printed object.

  1. Patents and Designs

In the context of 3D printing and infringement of IP rights, other potential issues could be patented objects or designs.

A patent gives the owner an exclusive and absolute right to exploit the invention covered by the patent for a defined period of time (in Germany, 20 years).5

Although many patents are for complex inventions with many components, there are also some simple patented products/inventions which can be produced by 3D printers--for example, certain medical devices such as prostheses and hearing aids.6 An infringement of patent rights may exist if the infringing product will be kept, used or offered for saleto potential buyers. However, this does not apply when the products have been produced for private, non-commercial purposes.7 This principle may apply to many of the patented products which are reproduced at home for personal use.

The same principles apply to objects which are protected by design rights.

  1. Trademarks

Besides copyrights, patents and design rights, trademarks can be concerned as well. Whenever trademarks exist on three-dimensional objects which are then copied, there is a risk that the producer possibly infringes those trademarks. Purely personal use cannot infringe trademarks unless the private consumer sells what was printed, but commercial use of a trademark is likely to infringe it. A commercial copy of trademark protected objects is an infringement, even if there is a hint that it is not the original product.8

In summary, like telecommunication or computers, personal 3D printing can radically change the environment in which we live now. As with every change, such developments may have negative aspects as well. For example, the invention of Internet sharing of music files has had negative consequences for music copyrights owners and 3D printing technology may have similar implications for artistic copyrights owners, design rights owners or the owners of trademarks and patents. Although the personal, private use of the 3D printing technology may not infringe IP rights, clear laws are required, for example, with regard to the allowed number of private copies.9 It remains to be seen how 3D printers will actually develop and how the legislation will deal with these upcoming challenges.