Intellectual Property in 3D Printing – What Are The Legal Issues?

Today is World Intellectual Property Day, which isn’t quite as boring as it sounds, I promise. Its aim is to raise awareness around copyright, patents, and intellectual property (IP) rights as these can be quite difficult to understand. Advances in technology can lead to interesting legal changes to these concepts. 3D printing introduces some interesting challenges to existing IP law, so let’s explore how IP law interacts with 3D printing.

Print anything for free, but at what cost?

One of the main attractions of 3D printing to a lot of people is the ability to print virtually any object. In theory, the only limitation is your imagination. But what if the object you’re printing is patented or copyrighted? You would be taking away potential sales revenue from the owner, and you may not even be aware of it! 3D printing unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view point!) makes it easy for someone to reproduce commercially available products at a significantly lower cost.

Luckily, you do not have to worry too much about the legal implications of this. 3D printing is very popular among hobbyists and this use of existing IPs, whether intentional or not, is normally considered as ‘non-commercial’ use under current law. Phew!

But what about the printer files themselves which you used to print the object; where did they come from, who designed them and what are their rights?

(3D printed Mickey Mouse, a copyrighted character deeply involved with the changing of copyright law. Designed by Exfusion on Cults3D.)

Designers and legal ownership

Design IPs are another legal minefield when it comes to 3D printing. If you design a 3D CAD file which can be used by 3D printers and publish it for free download, what are your rights if someone makes money from printing the models and selling them? What if someone makes money from selling a slightly edited version of your original design files? 

(The Creative Commons License symbols, from left to right: Creative Commons, Attribution, and Non-Commercial.)

Well, 3D print files are usually covered by a Creative Commons license which allows others to use the files and edit them as long as attribution to the author is given. So, there is reputational recourse for the designer but unfortunately there is no financial recourse. You would instead need a non-commercial Creative Commons license that prevents commercial use, but for many going down the legal route is far too expensive and time consuming. As such, pre-emptive methods are preferable to combat unlawful uses of design files.

So what pre-emptive methods are there? Well, there’s the option of digitally marking the design files themselves so that their uses can be monitored in an attempt to identify unlawful uses. You can also charge for downloads of the design files, which is something many designers do to get around this, however this goes against the open-source and attributional spirit of the 3D printing community.

Changing the law

There is very little IP law exclusively for 3D printing, and in the future this may be problematic. As 3D printers continue to become more affordable and readily available for personal use, the existing IP laws may not be able to adequately account for this level of use and may need changing.

 

In the meantime, be sure to give credit wherever possible to the designer of any models which you print and share online! For further reading on the subject we recommend visiting the Intellectual Property Office website.

(3D model of Winnie the Pooh, another copyrighted character. This was printed using our yellow PLA filament. Available for purchase here)