Understanding IP for 3D printing
Enthusiasm for 3D printing technology has grown in parallel with a fall in the cost of equipment, allowing small businesses, and perhaps even some consumers too, to make use of new developments. There are some obstacles to the technology really taking off, but as materials improve and costs come down these obstacles will probably be overcome. One of the issues not yet widely discussed, however, is how those wanting to take advantage of 3D printing will navigate the intellectual property maze.
Together with the capability to print functioning 3D objects also come some important legal considerations. Printing such products can result in damages if the products infringe someone else’s intellectual property rights (IPR).
Different types of intellectual property relate to different aspects of the printing process: from copyright in software to control the printer, to design rights in the components, and to patents covering the polymers used in printing and aspects of the printer, as well as trade marks for branding. The onus is on those supplying and using 3D design templates to investigate who is the true owner of the original designs, products or creations.
There are laws in each country governing the use of the various types of intellectual property. There are ways to avoid some of the pitfalls by making some easy checks around the products that you wish to produce. For example, it is possible using national websites to search for 3D trade marks and designs that others may have registered that prevent you from legally using or producing their products. Databases of published patent information are publicly available through national patent offices, for example through the US Patent and Trademark Office, the UK Intellectual Property Office, European Patent Office and through the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).
Patent searches on 3D printing identify over 3,000 patent families that have been filed over the past 20 years and that 3D printing area is one of expanding activity. Applications are wide, from curable inks, dental implants and orthodontics, customised jewellery to prototypes for vehicles, including racing cars.
In a crowded patent landscape such as that of 3D printing, a new developer is at risk of infringing existing patents. Some of the patents in this landscape will be of significant value and understanding the relative position of the new development to the existing patents is important for business decisions relating to investment, development of a product or sale of a business.
As the market develops, knowing what patents your nearest competitors hold will be essential for anyone with a business interest. As with other industries this is visualised in a patent landscape. A developer of 3D printing for dental applications, for example, can look in detail within a landscape and find detailed information on which companies are particularly active.
There are also, of course, IP issues regarding the end-product of 3D printing that will need to be managed. Earlier this year Nokia allowed customers to use 3D printers to make their own cases for its Lumia phones and released files containing drawings and recommended materials for others to use.
It is important for anyone planning to trade internationally, however, to know that different regulations may apply to different countries. In addition, some of the aspects that underpin IP, such as copyright, are, in this digital age, in a state of flux, with governments reviewing how these laws should look in the future.
3D printing is a complex area, as regards IP, with much being determined by case law, and specialist advice regarding patent, rights copyright, registered and unregistered design rights, trademarks and passing-off should be sought if there is any doubt about the legality of producing an object.
Because of the excitement surrounding 3D printing and its implications for everyday life there are demands for the alignment of IP laws and policy changes at government level. In the meantime, as controversies on file sharing via the internet demonstrate, disputes are likely to continue.
Although there is still some way to go, there is a believable vision that the 3D printer will one day become as ubiquitous as an ordinary printer and that current obstacles and issues, including those of IP, will be resolved. In future, for instance, the machines themselves may be able to search databases to see if licences are recorded for a particular object or shape, and may give the user options to buy a licence to print.
Doing your own research and perhaps, where necessary, taking advice at an early stage is the best way, for all involved in this fascinating technology.
About Coller IP
Coller IP specialises in helping organisations protect, understand, value and commercialise all aspects of intellectual property/intellectual capital. Coller IP has won numerous awards including being voted top UK IP valuation firm 2013, by Acquisition International magazine.
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