20 March 2014 by Matthew Miller

3D printing – a can of worms?

This slightly esoteric e-news is not about whether you can manufacture an actual can of worms using a 3D printer, though that may well be possible (if not now, then in the near future).

As its name suggests, 3D printing involves the printing of three-dimensional objects. The printer builds up a layer of very fine powder on a surface, which is then hardened, usually by the use of a laser, before the next layer is added, and so on and so on, until the 3D object is finished. The development of ever more sophisticated technology, and different constituent materials, already allows for very precise printing from increasingly complex designs.

Suffice to say that the potential applications are apparent within a huge range of manufacturing-based industries, and the global 3D printing market is forecasted to be worth US$8billion by the year 2020. But the legal issues are no less manifest. Trust the lawyers to spoil the party.

For example, in the same way that digital file-sharing besieged the music and film industries, the sharing of digital files containing 3D printing designs, over the internet, already allows fashion accessories to be manufactured by anyone with, or with access to, a 3D printer. In fact you don’t even need the original design file. By scanning an original object, commercial and private counterfeiters can effectively ‘reverse-engineer’ a digital design file for that object. The impact on the fashion industry, and for high-end brands in particular, could be huge. And that’s just one example in one industry.

Legitimate rights-holders will still have protection in the form of trade marks, design rights and copyright generally. (In fact, copyright may well protect digital design files for 3D objects, products or other works that, once manufactured, do not actually benefit from copyright protection.) Going forward though, as 3D printing is used more and more widely, the focus will be on trying to regulate the use of computer codes and the sharing of digital design files. New forms of regulation, and new registered intellectual property rights, are likely to be needed.

While the technology still remains relatively undeveloped, the challenge for lawyers and law-makers alike is how to effectively regulate the manufacture of illegal products and substances by 3D printing. Ideally, this needs to happen before 3D printers hit the mass market, which is likely to be much sooner than we think.

Someone print the lid for that 3D can of worms……….

For advice on intellectual property law and related matters, please contact one of our specialist team:

Matthew Miller 020 7288 4739, matthewmiller@boltburdon.co.uk

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