3D printing is in constant progression and is becoming increasingly accessible. With the speed at which technologies are being developed and especially with the significant reduction in price of 3D printers, these are set to become commonplace household items. Indeed, certain models are already available to the general public from as little as 300€.
There is a risk that consumers may abandon traditional distribution methods. In reality, if people can print objects in such a simple way, why would they pay for such items? In particular, the recent development of cheap 3D printers that allows anyone to produce or reproduce objects is likely to raise questions regarding intellectual property rights.
Even if, for the time being, the 3D printers that are available to the public can only be used to reproduce small plastic objects, infringements have already been noted. The owner of this type of printer can reproduce certain protected items such as products under the LEGO brand. From now on, the development of 3D printers means that for inventors, creators and rights holders there is a serious risk of counterfeit.
In theory, four aspects of intellectual property are applicable to 3D printing: patent rights, trademark rights, design rights and copyright. In practice, copyright does not afford protection since only private copies are concerned. Since counterfeit rules do not apply to private copies, it would therefore be easy to print an object by simply omitting the trademarked elements such as the name for example.
Of course it has always been possible to copy objects, however in the context of 3D development, it is the ease of reproduction which is causing consternation. Anyone will be able to copy an object thanks to 3D printing, since no skills or particular abilities are needed.
Several lawsuits have already been filed. For example, in 2011, Paramount demanded the removal of 3D files from a cube inspired by the film Super8 by JJ Abrams. The modeling of the object had been sent and shared on the Shapeways site. The Pirate Bay, a site for exchanging multimedia and software, had opened a section called “Physibles” and was offering several files of items to be printed. Access to this was blocked on the grounds of counterfeit by order of the Antwerp Court of Appeal(1).
More recently, nuProto who had launched a printed version of an object from the series Game of Thrones, designed as a mobile phone accessory, was compelled to stop all sales by American chain HBO.
Current legislation no longer seems appropriate, and ad hoc solutions will have to be found. There is a need for appropriate Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the application of technical measures to control access to data protected by intellectual property rights in the field of 3D printing. An American patent2 has already been filed that is seeking to apply a DRM system to 3D files. Of course, such a system is in danger of being quickly outmaneuvered by counterfeiters.
The challenge that has arisen today regarding the illegal reproduction of objects appears to be a repetition of what happened several years ago surrounding the pirating of music and films, and which has only partially been resolved. The digital era is forcing intellectual property to have a fresh makeover. To be followed!
(1)Antwerp Court of Appeal 26.09.11