Intellectual Property Protection and 3D Printing
The relative ease and inexpensiveness of 3D printing raises some interesting questions that implicate many facets of intellectual property law including patent, copyright, and trademark law. The popularity of 3D printing has been increasing exponentially over the past several years. In a departure from traditional printing, 3D printing uses a computer aided design (CAD) file to print a 3D object. A 3D printer prints by laying down microscopically thin layers of material upon one another, according to the CAD file, until the object has been built from the ground up, so to speak. Sites on the internet, such as thingiverse.com, have popped up as platforms for individuals to share CAD files, making the printing of virtually endless 3D images fast and simple. The 3D printing revolution is frequently compared to the MP3 and peer-to-peer music filing sharing of the early 2000s. This comparison extends not only to the ease with which CAD files are shared, but also with regard to the potential for intellectual property infringement.
Different facets of the 3D printing implicate different forms of intellectual property protection. Starting from the beginning and working through the 3D printing process, the different intellectual property issues can be identified. First, a 3D object is printed using a CAD file, and this CAD file is subject to copyright protection. Copyright extends to literary, artistic, and other creative works, which protection attaches to a work as soon as it is fixed in a tangible medium. In practical terms, copyright is implicated when a user downloads and uses a CAD file from the internet without the creator’s permission, which constitutes copyright infringement. Next, the printing of the actual 3D object, may implicate patent, trademark, and copyright issues. A patent infringement issue may arise if a 3D object is printed that is encompassed by an issued patent. There are two types of patents, utility patents and design patents, either of which are applicable in the 3D printing context. Utility patents protect the actual functionality and use of devices, machines, and the like, whereas design patents protect only the ornamental design of a functional item. Implications of utility and design patent come into play in the 3D printing context when a machine, device, or other functional item is printed that is protected by either or both types of patents. The person printing a patent protected item is infringing on the patent. Trademark law is also impacted by 3D printing. A trademark is used to identify the source of goods or a particular company, and the owner of the trademark has the exclusive right to use such a mark. Trademarks can come in many forms including words, symbols, or designs. 3D printing implicates trademark law when, for example, an individual uses a 3D printer to print an object with the trademarked University of Nebraska’s “N” logo on it. This would constitute a violation of the University’s trademark as the individual is using the trademark without permission. Finally, copyright law may also be implicated in the printing of a 3D object. If the object that is printed has an ornamental design or aspect, reproducing that design without the copyright owner’s permission, could constitute copyright infringement.
While it is clear that 3D printing implicates many facets of intellectual property law, it is unclear how enforcement of such rights will be handled by the owners of the various forms of intellectual property. One issue owners of such intellectual property will face is enforcement because as 3D printers become more prevalent, individuals will be able to print in the privacy of their home making it difficult for an owner to know when their rights are infringed. Further, users of 3D printers will face the problem of ascertaining whether or not a downloaded CAD file will implicate copyright and whether or not the object they print has patent or trademark protection. Despite these concerns, 3D printing is an innovative area with endless possibilities and it will be exciting to see this area develop from a legal and inventive perspective.