3D printing is likely to change the retail industry entirely and for brand owners there will of course be pros and cons. There is a concern that 3D printers will encourage and facilitate counterfeiting. Although there is no direct way to know the full consequences at this stage, it is something brand owners should be aware of. In addition, a lawfully bought product could potentially be scanned and subsequently copied. Peer to peer file sharing could also cause a major problem.

The reality of actually enforcing any intellectual property right for 3D printed products is still uncertain and it is unclear whether third parties that facilitate the printing of infringing products (such as 3D printing services) will be liable.. Other areas that may be affected include production, manufacturing and supply contracts as well as the impact 3D printing may have on current and future contracts.

In any event, with Chanel having produced a 3D printed suit, we have no doubt that before long, 3D printing will be common in the retail industry. In fact, within the next ten years, 3D printing is anticipated as the “next industrial revolution” due to it involving shorter lead times for production and less waste. It will also allow smaller businesses and designers to use 3D printing services rather than incurring traditional expensive start-up and production costs. As many items are already capable of being produced via 3D printing, such as eyewear, shoes and jewellery, the industry has already started to see the effect of the technology. Although clothing and material is not currently easily 3D printed, a Japanese IT fashion tech company STARted recently produced a garment called AMIMONO by having a 3D printer knit together thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) filaments as threads by using an algorithm.

Inevitably, it will not be long until clothes are more easily manufactured using 3D printing, but in the meantime the legal position remains as follows:-

  • Design Rights - Any registered or unregistered design would be protected. If an unauthorised third party makes a copy the design, it will be considered to have been infringed.
  • Trade Marks - Any trade marks which are affixed to a copy of a product and used in the course of trade will continue to be protected.
  • Copyright - If an item constitutes an artistic work, it will be protected by copyright and therefore any copying, not covered by a licence or a valid defence, will constitute copyright infringement.

The CAD (Computer Aided Design) file may be protected as a literary work. Direct copying through for example, file sharing sites would constitute copyright infringement. However, copyright will not subsequently protect any item made using that file if it is not an artistic work.

One important point to note is that personal use will not amount to infringement of any intellectual property rights in relation to 3D printing, therefore any product which infringes an intellectual property right, but has been created for personal use will not be breaking the law. In relation to copyright, the government has introduced a limited private copying exception into English law which applies to people who already lawfully own a copy of the work and copy it for their own personal use.

What could prove to be the most valuable products in the future for any business and brand are their CAD files and subsequent licences for their products. Protecting, encrypting and preventing the unlawful use of the CAD files is vital. These measures should be seriously considered by businesses and brands as 3D printing becomes more common place in the retail market.