10/06/2013

3D Printing – The holy grail of copycats?

Recent advances in the field of 3D printing, together with a drop in price of the printers themselves, has meant that it is now easier than ever to copy and print 3D objects in much the same way as we may have burned DVDs in the past.

As the technology continues to advance it will be possible to print a virtually unlimited number of devices, from toys, to spare parts for cars and even houses. However, these advances have led to a number of legal problems.

The widely reported example of Cody Wilson, who developed, printed and then published the designs of “the Liberator” the first working solely printed gun, brought this technology to the attention of the wider public and highlighted that it allowed almost anyone to manufacture goods, which may have, in the past, been limited to experienced manufacturers.

Away from the moral and regulatory issues of allowing ordinary people to print their own weapons, the main legal issues are in the field of intellectual property. In the same way that in the past DVD and CD burners allowed people to copy and distribute copyrighted material such as films and music, 3D printers will allow people to take almost any 3D object and produce an identical copy.

A recent example was Fernando Sosa, who printed and started to sell an iPod docking station based on the Iron Throne chair from the series Game of Thrones. Not long after, he received a cease and desist letter from HBO (the producers of Game of Thrones), who claimed that even though Mr Sosa had designed the ipod doc himself, HBO claimed ownership of the intellectual property vesting in the design of the Iron Throne.

The presence of websites such as Thingiverse, which allow people to share and download 3D designs has exacerbated the issue, as for the vast majority of people there is now no development time involved prior to printing the object. A quick search of the website show that a large number of the designs are likely to be infringing third party intellectual property.

WHAT IS 3D PRINTING AND HOW DOES IT WORK?

3D printing is loosely described by Makerbot, one of the leaders in the world of 3D printing, as being an additive manufacturing process, which builds objects layer by layer according to a 3D design file. This differs from classic manufacturing which often works by subtracting material to achieve a specified shape.

HOW DOES THIS AFFECT INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY?

Depending on its design and function, it is highly likely that most 3D designs will be protected by either copyright or unregistered design rights. In addition, it is possible that the owner may have registered their rights as either a registered design or patent. One of the basic principles of intellectual property law is that the owner of the rights can prevent others from copying it and therefore the presence of 3D printers, which effectively allow individuals to make identical copies of almost any object, mean that infringement is far more likely than ever before.

For further information on any of the issues listed above, please contact Peter Barton from Gordons’ specialist Digital & Technology team.