Précis - As the use of 3D printers continues to grow, companies should be aware of the potential IP issues arising from the production of 3D "print-outs".
What? - 3D printing technology enables the use of a vast array of different materials (such as wood, metals, glass, ceramics and even living cells) to build physical items, layer by layer, from CAD (computer aided design) files ("Design Files"). The finished articles produced using this innovative technology can range in complexity, from simple household objects such as tables and chairs, to composite electronics, machinery and chemicals. The technology allows any individual owning a 3D printer to download Design Files from the internet and produce objects formed precisely to the Design File's specification. Accordingly, commentators argue that 3D printing will challenge current manufacturing conventions and may lead to a "make-it-yourself" or "personal manufacturing" revolution, particularly as the price of 3D printers becomes affordable to consumers.
So What? - The development of this technology carries a multitude of IP implications. It is easy to see that 3D printing could be used to copy and replicate a product and that, if copyright or design right subsists in the product being copied, this would constitute an infringement unless consent from the rights-owner has been obtained. Where products are produced using components, each formed from a Design File owned by a different individual, complex questions may arise as to ownership and protection of the completed product. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most concerns in relation to IP infringement are being raised not by designers, but by the manufacturing industry. As the price of "personal manufacturing" reduces, the use of Design Files may well become widespread and the originality and ownership of the IP contained in those Design Files may be questioned. This technology may also be used to create large scale moulds and castings which are then used to create products en masse for the open market, which in turn may cause potential difficulties for businesses with limited resources who are seeking to enforce their rights against counterfeiters.
The nature of this technology will mean that Design Files can be copied immediately and distributed across the internet very easily. This raises concerns around online piracy and echoes some of the challenges being faced by the music, television and film industries currently. The internet (particularly file-sharing websites) will be under close scrutiny as businesses, and those who produce Design Files, monitor any "pirating" of their material. To address these issues, it is possible that some form of quasi-patent or design right will be formulated, together with new legislation to ensure that anyone who "facilitates" infringement in this arena (for example, by featuring a Design File on their website) would be directly liable to the rights owners; preventing companies from having to engage in costly and sometimes futile litigation with individuals who download and use infringing Design Files. We will be monitoring developments in this area and will provide an update as and when any of the various IP issues highlighted above play out.