How 3D Printing Affects Intellectual Property


January 6, 2015

Artists, designers and industries have always wrestled with the potential problem of intellectual property theft. Whether it’s fighting to fending off the malicious reproduction of closely guarded designs or trying to keep an eye on the distribution of licensed creations, the challenges of maintaining intellectual property rights are only getting more complicated as 3D printing increases in popularity.

What is 3D Printing?

Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing uses a special type of printer and one of hundreds of manufacturing materials to create solid copies of objects. To make this possible, the objects are first scanned with a 3D scanner and turned into Computer Added Design (CAD) files that the printer then reads. Materials are laid down in successive horizontal layers as the printer effectively “builds” the item section by section, which stands in contrast to the subtractive nature of traditional manufacturing.

This rapidly growing technology has a multitude of applications. It may be used to create models, prototypes or parts for machines and aircraft. Methods for printing working human organs for use in transplants are also in the works. On the creative side, 3D printing provides a way for artists and designers to literally bring their imaginations to life.


The Intellectual Property Dilemma

Just like the troubles that arose surrounding peer-to-peer music and file sharing sites, problems with intellectual property law are beginning to pop up in relation to 3D printing. Many “blueprint” sites exist where designers can upload their creations for others to print, but not all of these creations represent original work. Even when they do, it can be difficult to track whether or not end users are following proper attribution procedures according to any creative licenses attached to the design. At a certain point, reproduction becomes uncontrollable and the origin of the initial creation gets lost in the chaos.

One of the biggest problems with 3D printing and intellectual property law is that most people don’t understand how copyright works. This leads to unintentional and accidental infringement that can result in big losses for the companies or designers holding the rights to the items being reproduced. With personal 3D printers becoming more common, it’s getting harder to track down individual infringers and prove that their actions are worthy of legal punishment.

3D Printing, Intellectual Property and the Future

Copyright law technically goes into effect the moment a unique design is created, but industries and designers can file for additional legal protections in an attempt to keep their intellectual property from being reproduced. Patents, trademarks and design protection are all meant to ensure that a design remains the property of the original creator. However, these do little to stop malicious users from creating counterfeit copies of anything from toys to functional weapons. The potential dangers posed by some of these items may bring other branches of the law, such as liability law, into play as time goes on.

Given the complex legal challenges surrounding 3D printing and intellectual property, it could be some time before official legislation is put in place to handle cases of infringement. Until then, those who create and distribute designs need to be made aware of how to take advantage of available protections so that they have some type of legal recourse should their creations fall into the wrong hands.


Solution

The Law Office of Jeff Williams has worked across many verticles and can help if you think that someone has violated your intellectual property rights through 3D printing. With offices throughout Texas, we can help you wherever you are located.