3D Printing & Intellectual Property Rights

Date: November 10, 2014

Many people are pointing to 3D printing as the next big thing. This has led many others to point to intellectual property issues that will almost certainly become hot button questions in the near future.

With the arrival of accessible 3D printing comes the capacity to alter business and effect social change. Yet, it also raises issues regarding the unauthorized reproduction of products protected by intellectual property laws. 

There are numerous ways to encroach upon intellectual property rights, whether it’s copyrights, patents or trademarks. Yet, little law exists for those who use a 3D printer for infringement purposes. In fact, a major question remains unanswered as it’s not clear who is liable for infringement, as the line between manufacturer, retailer, user and intellectual property rights becomes blurred.

Many may recall the 1984 case of Sony v. Betamax, which highlighted concerns that the VCR would lead to unbridled copyright infringement as people could copy TV shows and movies, and then display them to others. Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that the VCR could be used for non-infringing purposes, and the rest as we know it is history. On the flipside, however, was another popular technological episode to play out in the courts - Napster. The popular peer-to peer music sharing site was shut down because its usage was considered infringing. There's an invaluable lesson to be learned from the near-disastrous effect of copyright infringement on the music industry, and it will be interesting to see how the prevailing organizations – and the courts - find the delicate balance of the pros and cons associated with 3D printing.

As the price of personal 3D printers comes down and the quality of their production improves, more people will be able to enjoy the perks of having a 3D printer at home. From this stems a threat to copyright owners, in which designers of products can be by-passed or undermined if the digital outlines of works are shared and then printed at home. The same fear is seen by trademark owners where copiers can simply remove a logo before printing. The US Copyright and Trademarks Acts each have provisions that provide a personal use exemption which could limit the amount of infringement claims. The Patent Act, however, does not provide for this same exemption.

The creation of the 3D printer almost certainly will bring an increase in patent infringement cases. Yet, as monitoring home use of a 3D printer may prove to be particularly onerous, some infringements on intellectual property may receive punishments as many others go widely unnoticed.  3D printing is not the first “new invention” to rock the intellectual property realm, and it certainly will not be the last. Like other ideas and inventions before it, time will be the best indicator as to whether or not the law will evolve to encourage this new technology or encumber its growth. 


Questions about intellectual property and your business? Contact the attorneys at Whiteford Taylor Preston.