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The former warning against VHS piracy famously involved the phrase “you wouldn’t steal a car”. In the era of file-sharing, the Internet’s mocked and reworked version resulted in the phrase “you wouldn’t download a car”. Now, it seems, that day may have come.

The phenomenon of 3D printing is being heralded as “the third industrial revolution”. This is the era of all things ‘personal’ and ‘digital’. Analysts have suggested that the market for 3D printing equipment and services will triple by 2018. However, alongside the numerous opportunities, the emergence of this form of manufacturing poses many legal issues.

3D printing is a computer-driven manufacturing technology which is ‘additive’ by nature, involving the addition of layers of material to create a finished product. This additive manufacturing process is being utilised to produce an array of products in a variety of materials, ranging from toys, mobile phone covers and jewellery to engine parts, weapons and food. Due to the expiration of a number of key patents in the past few years, the cost of 3D printers has fallen and a range of affordable desktop printers has emerged.

3D printing and the law

The law often encounters difficulties in keeping up with current trends, particularly the developments of the digital age. 3D printing may well surpass one of major legal battles of recent years – mp3 file-sharing in its complexity. It touches on numerous intellectual property (IP) rights and presents complex questions about how the law might apply. While copyright law was the major battleground of the past decade, 3D printing will also involve other rights including patents, trade marks and industrial designs.

Considering the very extensive possibilities that 3D printers might provide, there have already been calls for specific legislation and regulation of the sector. The ‘Liberator’, the world’s first 3D printed gun (made almost entirely of plastic), was widely reported in early 2013 and demonstrated both the current capabilities of 3D printing and the rapid distribution of the designs. In the two days following the release of the ‘Liberator’ blueprint, the file was downloaded over 100,000 times. Authorities soon sought the takedown of the file, together with blueprints for assault rifle parts. Concerns have also been voiced about other applications of 3D printers, such as the creation of illegal drugs, keys for high security handcuffs and chemical weapons.

Rapid advances in materials used

More recently, Solid Concepts has successfully printed and assembled the components to what is believed to be the world’s first 3D printed metal gun. This again proves the extensive future potential of this technology, although such advanced printing is still many years beyond the grasp of the public.

Unsurprisingly, the technology has already attracted litigation in both the US and UK. A user of the major 3D file-sharing website, ‘Thingiverse’, recently became embroiled in one of the first legal battles concerning 3D printing. Thomas Valenty, characterised as an “unwilling combatant in the next digital war”, had designed and uploaded a figurine based on the ‘Warhammer’ collectibles. Games Workshop, the rights holder, issued a notice and takedown order and the offending files were removed from Thingiverse.

Valenty had not directly copied the artistic design and was not profiting from its distribution. Whether the file and resulting figurine was, in fact, an infringement is far from clear. Ultimately the case was settled amicably but it served to signal the issues that are likely to surface in the coming years, indicating a need to reconsider existing laws.

Rising intellectual property issues

As with the ‘file-sharing’ of music and films, IP law may initially struggle to effectively deal with the implications of 3D printing. There is significant debate as to whether, and how, various rights and associated infringements relate to 3D designs and printed products. Spare parts, for instance, vary in their protection between EU Member States. Legislation also provides exemptions for personal and non-commercial production, although private use exceptions are likely to be challenged by the presence of online sharing platforms. They may be unavailable to many 3D ‘shops’, for example. These issues are then complicated by the various people who may be involved in the process, from the designers to the sharers and printers.

With more relevant patents set to expire in 2014, the industry is poised to undergo considerable changes. Separately, 3D scanners are currently taking off at a rate of knots and low-cost and personal models are already available. It will not be long before the battle lines in the online IP law debates are drawn once again.

For more information, contact a membr of our Technology team.

The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.

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