3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing technology where a three-dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. Since 2003 there has been large growth in the sale of 3D printers. Additionally, the cost of 3D printers has declined.
Just in these days and within the framework of the London Design Festival, the London Albert & Victoria Museum is staging an exhibition ‘Industrial Revolution 2.0: How the Material World will Newly Materialise’ . The exhibition is a showcase displaying works made by 3D printing by Stephen Jones, Patrick Jouin, Iris van Herpen, and many others. Renowned New York-based design gallerist and curator Murray Moss has collaborated with industry provider Materialise, Belgium to create a special exhibition which pushes the parameters of 21st century 3D printing. A series of unique ‘printed’ works, using cutting edge laser and digital technologies to build three-dimensional objects, are placed throughout the Museum’s most important galleries, wittily referencing eight of the Museum’s key pieces and spaces; see also this report on i.materialise.
With regard to patent law, 3D printing taken as such appears to bear no particular implications out of the normal routine: We may assume that professional providers like Materialise NV and others know what they are doing and have some legal or patent department giving suitable advice.
However, as 3D printing technologie gets mature, two developments are foreseeable:
- In a first stage, perhaps to be experienced in a few years of time, heavy-duty 3D printing equipment might be generally available but too expensive to be bought by broader consumer circles. Maybe that costs for such devices will be comparable to large professional photocopying machines. If such assumption should become reality, there might be room for new business models of 3D copy shops: Small businesses loacted in your town around next corner where you can show up with a memory stick or something like that storing a 3D model of some object you would like to have produced. Perhaps such shop even might provide 3D scanning services as well; in such case the customer simply shows up with some 3D object in his pocket and goes away with one or more exact replicas thereof.
- In a second stage, costs of 3D printing equipment might drop to levels comparable to today’s laser printer devices. Maybe that 3D printers will be heavily cross-subsidised by surcharges on printing raw materials in the same manner as 2D printers today are subsidised by expensive ink or toner cartridges. This would mean that consumers can produce a broad range of 3D objects at home without need to contract any external service provider.
Of course, there is some hype in the current reporting on 3D printing: For many practical applications, not only the 3D shape is of relevance but also more elaborate characteristics, e.g. in view of a specific electrical conductivity, hardness, heat-resistance and/or elasticity. Those who fear that in the age of 3D printing everyone might be able to produce firearms at home might be reminded that the functionality of a gun is not determined by its 3D shape alone; it must also bear the heat and the enormous forces of the explosion of the propellant.
But nevertheless surely there will be many useful real world applications of 3D printing, most of them perfectly legal, some, of course, blatantly illegal or serving illegal ends. There are, for example, reports saying criminals stole more than $400,000 using ATM skimming devices made from high-tech 3D printers.
But what we might see, if the above-noted assumptions are true, is that another front of legal battles will be opened where John Doe and Max Mustermann risk entanglement with Intellectual Property laws.
In the first half of the 20th century, virtually no private individual living a mainstream-style life ever was in risk of infringing copyright laws: Printing presses were as expensive as, later in the century, radio and TV broadcasting equipment and out of reach for private consumers. Mass media were, due to economic necessity, owned by larger corporations which could afford to take legal advice and which could held liable easily in case of wrongdoing.
But in the age of PCs connected to the Internet we today see an epic battle of rights holders attempting to defend and to enforce their exclusion rights in the field of Copyright in the courts against countless private individuals engaging e.g. in file-sharing activities at home on the basis of their own PC and Internet infrastructure.
The PC and the Internet are also the tools which even today might bring individuals in conflict with patents on computer-implemented inventions or software patents. However, contrary to many fears of open source advocates, up to now the mainstream of litigation e.g. in the smartphone patent litigation business is directed against major players in that market, not against more or less private individuals. Exceptions are a few commercial developers creating smartphone apps sued by Lodsys; however, the particulars of such cases appear to hint that the main direction of attack was meant to be platform providers like Apple or Google.
Things might again change in an age where 3D printing techniques have matured and are cheaply in everybody’s reach. 3D copy shops will probably not benefit from any exemptions in patent law privileging private and non-commercial use of patented technologies as they are present e.g. in national German patent law. I don’t talk here on patents covering the 3D scanning / printing processes and devices (these problems should be dealt with by the manufacturers of such equipment) but on patents (and, by the way, also registered designs) infringed not by the technology provided in the 3D printing shop but by the specific 3D objects or object models brought in by the non-commercial customers. Will rights holders attempt to shut down such small 3D copy shop businesses by filing lawsuits on the basis of secondary patent infringement? Anyway, consumer-oriented 3D copy shops would face utter difficulties in assessing if replicating some object brought in by a customer infringes third party’s IP rights if they were legally required to do so.
Even if the 3D technology gets operated at home by the consumer, problems remain. For example, the German patent exemption covers only acts that are cumulatively of private nature as well as non-commercial. Excange of money is not a necessary precondition to get out of the scope of this exemption. For example, producing a small lot of object for free distribution amongst friends might, under some circumstances, be considered lying outside the scope of the German private-use patent infringement exemption.
Will we see in, say 10 years from now, a discussion on liability of ISPs for not filtering out 3D model data utilisable for 3D printing if they are suspected of infringing patent / design rights?
Axel H. Horns
German & European Patent, Trade Mark & Design Attorney
The k/s/n/h::law blog
Some of the patent attorneys of the KSNH law firm have joined their efforts to research what is going on in the various branches of IP law and practice in order to keep themselves, their clients as well as interested circles of the public up to date. This blog is intended to present results of such efforts to a wider public.
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