1 May 2013Copyright

The shape of things to come: 3D printing

Twenty years ago, printing replacement organs, human skulls and three course meals seemed like the stuff of science fiction. But in 2013, architects in Amsterdam are building a 3D printed home; scientists in Scotland have proved they can print embryonic stem cells and aircraft manufacturers are working on ways to construct 3D printed planes. By 2025, it’s estimated that the 3D printing industry will be worth $8.4 billion, and US President Barack Obama believes it will be the next revolution in manufacturing.

“3D printing presents tremendous opportunities for businesses,” says Simon Jones, a partner at DLA Piper in London.

“Manufacturers will no longer need to own large production facilities halfway around the world, because they can print products on demand or sell licences to print them locally. This will have a huge impact on the supply chain, it will benefit the environment as there will be less waste, and companies will no longer need to spend a fortune gearing up to make a product and hoping its stock sells,” he adds.

3D printers work by layering thin slices of material on top of one another to create threedimensional objects based on blueprints, which can be created using computer-aided design (CAD) software or by scanning an existing object using a 3D scanner.

Most 3D printers use plastic, rubber or soft wood such as balsa, but developers are already experimenting with ways to print working electronics and even meat. The cost of equipment has plummeted: basic systems can now be bought for less than $2,000, compared with more than $10,000 just two years ago. By 2016, technology analysts Gartner predict that even high-end products will be available for a similar price.

Legal exposure

While 3D printing could transform manufacturing as we know it, it could also leave brand owners and inventors at serious risk of counterfeiting, piracy and patent and trademark infringement. In the UK in particular, current IP legislation offers little protection for rights holders.

As Gareth Stokes, an associate at DLA Piper explains, there are four areas of IP law that could be applied to 3D printing: patent rights, trademark rights, design rights and copyright, but in practice, none of these provides protection against domestic copying.

“Copying designs on a domestic non-commercial level isn’t considered infringement. To avoid trademark infringement, it would be easy to print an object but simply omit the trademarked elements such as a brand name, and copyright isn’t applicable unless a work has an artistic quality,” he adds.

Dr Dinusha Mendis, senior law lecturer and co-director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy and Management (CIPPM) at Bournemouth University and author of research paper The Clone Wars: Episode 1—The Rise of 3D Printing and its Implications for Intellectual Property Law: Learning Lessons from the Past?, says UK legislation is outdated in the digital age.

“UK IP laws were created long before 3D printing or any of the technologies we have now came about. Of course, patent and copyright laws have been amended a number of times to keep up with advancing technology, and there has been a push from the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) to adopt recommendations in the 2011 Hargreaves review, but from a user and a creator’s perspective, there are still grey areas,” she says.

Ease of infringement

While it has always been possible to make copies of an object, it is the ease with which this can be done that makes piracy and counterfeiting such a big concern in the 3D printing industry, says Stokes.


“Making things using traditional methods takes skill. But with 3D printing, someone skilled in making files can create one, upload it to the Internet and make it available for anyone to download and print. It’s this diffusion aspect that’s the real threat, in both domestic and commercial contexts,” he adds.

Mark Kenrick, managing partner at Marks & Clerk’s Manchester office, says the ease of manufacturing using 3D printing may also make it an attractive technology for companies that have previously avoided making products because of the associated costs and complications.

“Those disincentives may be considerably diminished. The increased availability of equipment will make the manufacture of previously difficult-to-produce items more straightforward, reducing barriers to entry for competitors,” he says.

As 3D printing becomes increasingly accessible and affordable, Lorna Caddy, a senior associate at Taylor Wessing LLP, says there is even a risk that consumers and businesses will bypass traditional retail models altogether—just as blogs and social media have enabled Internet users to publish content for themselves.

“If people can print goods such as toys easily and cheaply, why pay for the genuine article? On a mass scale, 3D printing will allow counterfeiters to manufacture goods in their home market, reducing shipping costs and avoiding customs seizures where goods are shipped in from other countries,” she adds.

Piracy worries

As the cost of 3D printing falls and our understanding of it advances, Stokes and Mendis believe it is only a matter of time before 3D printers become as commonplace in households as 2D inkjet models are now.

“Some people think it’s just a passing phase and not something that will really take off. But there is plenty of evidence to show this is not the case. There is definitely a future for 3D printing because it can be used in so many industries and has so many benefits,” says Mendis.

While simplified manufacturing will benefit the environment and companies’ bottom line, this technology’s shift from niche to mainstream has frightening implications for IP owners: in the decade following Napster’s launch, when the Internet and MP3 players were adopted by the masses, legitimate music sales nose-dived as consumers decided they’d rather download songs for free than pay the recommended retail price. By 2009, an estimated 95 percent of all music downloads were illegal.

Downloading a 3D design file is not as simple as obtaining a pirate album: consumers need expensive equipment and materials and more than just a laptop and an iPod. But notorious file-sharing site The Pirate Bay already hosts CAD files, and sites such as Shapeways and Thingiverse have been specifically created for the sale or sharing of 3D blueprints.

Shapeways and Thingiverse have already attracted controversy in the US, where they have received cease and desist orders and takedown notices for hosting designs based on copyrighted objects and characters from films, games and TV shows. In June last year, Paramount Pictures sent a cease and desist to the maker of a CAD file based on an object from the film Super8, while in December 2011, Games Workshop served a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to Thingiverse for hosting a blueprint for a Warhammer juggernaut.

Neither case resulted in litigation—as Kenrick points out, infringers in the US face triple damages if found liable—and both sites warn users against uploading infringing content in their terms of use policies. But Defcad, a new 3D file-sharing platform, is unlikely to be so sensitive to IP owners’ rights.


Defcad is operated by Defense Distributed, an organisation dedicated to developing open-source gun designs to allow Internet users to print their own weapons, regardless of national legislation.

The site was primarily set up to host these gun blueprints, but at this year’s SXSW technology conference, co-founder Cody Wilson announced plans to create a for-profit search engine indexing all kinds of printable files, where only malicious software will be banned. The site will not comply with takedown notices or removal requests, and will “fight everything to the full extent of the law,” he told the audience.

As Kenrick notes, any company that sets out with the stated aim of infringement is at serious risk of being sued. But as Stokes points out, music and film companies have learned the hard way that pursuing legal action against such sites does not remove this problem. “As soon as you take out one particular file-sharing avenue, another pops up,” he says.

Just as entertainment companies sued Newzbin and The Pirate Bay, Caddy believes inventors will almost certainly take legal action against sites sharing protected electronic design files, and the English High Court’s decision last year to order ISPs to block access to three major file sites without a hearing is proof there is an effective process available to copyright holders who want to stop content being shared without their permission.

“But in the context of 3D printing, copyright is the least likely to protect objects that consumers are most likely to copy. In most cases, businesses will need to rely on design and patent law, neither of which have the benefit of easy infringement blocking processes,” she adds.

Learning to adapt

How can designers and inventors contend with outdated IP laws and an online community that favours open-source models?

Kenrick believes the solution is creating a robust IP portfolio that protects objects’ functionality as well as their appearance, and assuming a proactive approach to infringement, while Caddy believes updating the private use exceptions in current IP laws and adding provisions to design, patent and trademark law allowing ISPs to block access to infringing sites could prove a useful tool for rights holders.

To tackle counterfeiting, Caddy suggests all rights holders should consider marking products as well as packaging to show when an item is protected by IP rights, which could help deter printing companies from agreeing to copy that item.

But as Caddy, Stokes and Mendis all agree, none of these provides a comprehensive solution for IP owners. “I don’t think relying on draconian IP laws is the answer,” says Mendis.

Instead, Mendis believes businesses should create market-driven business models—for example, by setting up an iTunes-style store for spare product parts, or by licensing 3D files more widely.

By selling licensing rights at a reasonable cost, Caddy believes business could counter the loss of physical product sales and limit piracy.

“If a consumer wishes to replace a vacuum cleaner part, for example, he or she could log on to the manufacturer’s website and download a CAD file to print the part. Making files available in this way gives businesses the opportunity to accompany those files with safety warnings and printing tips and most importantly, gives that business an opportunity to monetise its rights,” she explains.

Of course, this wouldn’t stop some users sharing or downloading pirated content. But if businesses can create an affordable, easy-to-use online model, they may be able to persuade consumers to pay a little extra for a genuine product, rather than waste time searching for a poorer quality free one.

“Brands cannot expect to control copying in any kind of legal way other than by competing on the basis of price and ease of use. Amazon, Google and Apple have managed to create successful music stores because they guarantee quality and make it easy for consumers to find, purchase and use files. Consumers can buy a file for just 79 pence and download it to their devices in seconds, rather than spending hours risking viruses on unverified websites,” says Stokes.

Indeed, while piracy remains a problem, the music industry’s efforts to offer a good value alternative to illegal file-sharing have led to positive results: last year, global recorded music revenues increased for the first time since 1999, to $16.5 billion.

This figure is only a little more than half of what it was in the 1990s, but it is further proof that rights holders cannot rely on legislation and IP protection alone to protect their investments and inventions. And while mass adoption of 3D printing may seem as though it’s a long way off, Mendis believes brands who don’t start preparing for this next revolution could have a very bleak future indeed.

“A number of high street retailers that failed to adapt to the online era have now gone bust. Businesses have to embrace new technology, because the reality is that it will continue to march forward. If brand owners don’t become creative, they could face piracy, counterfeiting or in extreme situations, they could sink altogether.”

Already registered?

Login to your account

To request a FREE 2-week trial subscription, please signup.
NOTE - this can take up to 48hrs to be approved.

Two Weeks Free Trial

For multi-user price options, or to check if your company has an existing subscription that we can add you to for FREE, please email Adrian Tapping at atapping@newtonmedia.co.uk