The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing (thanks Kevin!). Pictured above, Walt Disney’s head.
Throughout recorded history most people who have wanted a household article have bought or bartered it from someone else – in past times an artisan or trader, more recently a seller of mass-produced products. With few exceptions (such as some clothing) it is rare that any of us make such articles for ourselves these days. That may soon change. Thirty years ago only dedicated enthusiasts would print their own photographs or edit and reproduce their own newsletters. The advent of the home computer, and in particular of low-cost high-quality printers, has now made such things simple and commonplace. Recent developments in producing affordable and hobbyist-friendly printers that can reproduce three-dimensional rather than just flat objects may mean that printing a toast-rack or a comb becomes as easy as printing a birthday card.
Any lawyer familiar with copyright and trade mark law can see, however, that printing one’s own birthday cards could, depending on the source and nature of the images used, infringe a number of intellectual property (IP) rights. Tempting as it may be to copy and use a picture of a well-known cartoon character, the resulting cards would very likely be an infringement of the copyright and perhaps trade marks owned by the relevant rights holder. But what if someone uses a printer capable of producing a mobile phone cover bearing such an image? Or reproducing a distinctively-styled piece of kitchenware? What about printing out a spare wing-mirror mount for your car? Do these uses infringe IP rights?
In the first part of this paper, we review the history of 3D printing and describe recent developments, including a project initiated by one of the authors to bring such printers into the home. We then examine the IP implications of personal 3D printing with particular reference to the bundle of rights that would typically be associated with a product that might be copied.