Legal Impact of 3D Printing Technology

In January 2012, The Pirate Bay, the Swedish file-sharing website, known as the “world’s largest facilitators of illegal downloading”, was under scrutiny for allowing the sharing of a category of files called “physibles” where people can share schematics for 3D-printable objects. According to the Pirate Bay, the next step in “copying” will be making physical objects from digital files. Since then, 3D printing technology has evolved rapidly to the point whereby consumers are able to bypass the traditional retail models and manufacture products themselves. These recent technological progressions have given rise to claims that current UK intellectual property (IP) and copyright laws are insufficient for providing protection for rights holders.

A recent article by Dr Dinusha Mendis from Bournemouth University explores the relevant legal issues that could arise from this technology.[1] He draws attention to four main classes of IP law, including patent law, trade mark law, design law and copyright law explaining how each could potentially be infringed by the unlawful use of this emerging technology.

The category which is most relevant to the present discussion is that of artistic copyright. For Mendis, current legislation (CDPA 1998 s. 51 s. 4(1)) and Supreme Court rulings (Lucasfilm v Ainsworth) create grey areas for 3D printing whereby a single branch of IP law can lead to both infringement of protected products which are 3D printed. Although this is problematic as some situations of 3D printing may not technically infringe IP rights, it is the sharing of these objects and their designs via online platforms which calls for a reconsideration of the existing law; an issue that was dealt with in the recent case between British games production company Games workshop and file sharing platform Thingiverse.

The article concludes with a look to the future, claiming that it is important to consider, not only a reworking of the law, but also new business models in order to adapt to this new technology. As manufacturers and right holders will look to protect their products from infringement, it is suggested that new business models will need to be implemented, alongside the law.

[1] Mendis, D ‘The Clone Wars: Episode 1 – The rise of 3D printing and its implications for intellectual property law (European Intellectual Property Review 2013 35(3) 155-169.

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