Shapeways, The Community

The IP Implications of DIY 3D Printing

A recent paper in SCRIPTed: Journal of Law,
Technology & Society by Simon Bradshaw, Adrian Bowyer (of RepRap) and Patrick Haufe entitled The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing

could be a very important paper for Shapeways users (though it is an academic paper and not something that has been tested in the courts) that investigates the I.P. surrounding 3D printing for personal use.

The paper begins by introducing the history of 3D printing and describes recent
developments, including the emergence of RepRap (of course) and it’s derivatives such as MakerBot, then on to some ‘potential’ uses for 3D printing including Spare Parts, Craft and Hobby Items, Educational Uses, Unique Requirements and Fashion Accessories.  We have certainly seen a wide range of items on Shapeways that fall into these categories especially Craft, Hobby, Unique and Fashion/Jewelry but have not seen so many replacement parts, yet.

The paper looks specifically at the IP ramifications surrounding the 3D printing of an existing design or replacement part what might and might not be protected by IP law:

Under UK law… Purely personal use of 3D printing to make copies of household objects and spare parts does not infringe the IP rights that commonly protect such items, such as design protection, patents or trade marks. However, there are areas, such as the reproduction of artistic works, where IP rights such as copyright may be infringed. The advent of low-cost 3D printing may therefore pose challenges to several communities: manufacturers, who may be unable to enforce design protection against private users of 3D printing; artists, who may see a new forum for infringement of works previously difficult to copy, and users of low-cost 3D printing, who may face confusion as to what is legitimate and illegitimate use of the technology.

The paper goes on to discuss different kinds of design protection such as Registered Design, Unregistered Design Right, Patents and Copyright
in relation to 3D printing, and the exemptions from these design
protections that the 3D printed object for personal use may fall into.
For instance:

Component Parts. A component part of a
complex product may only be protected as a registered design if it is
both visible to the user in ordinary use (which excludes maintenance or
repair) and is of novel and individual design. Many spare parts for
cars or domestic appliances will be hidden in everyday use whilst many
others, even if normally visible, may be of commonplace design, such as
a pipe or washer.

Designs Dictated by Technical Function. Features of a product dictated solely by technical functionality may not be protected by registered design.

“Must Fit” Exception.
A design or design element is not registrable if it comprises “features
of appearance of a product which must necessarily be reproduced in
their exact form and dimensions so as to permit the product in which
the design is incorporated or to which it is applied to be mechanically
connected to, or placed in, around or against, another product so that
either product may perform its function”

The effect of these exemptions is that many items attractive for 3D printing will not be protected as registered designs. Many spare parts are likely to be components or fall under the “technical function” or “must fit” exemptions. The latter also applies to the shape of accessories and customisation items such as covers for mobile phones (but not…. to copyright artwork decorating them). Furthermore, even if a spare part escapes these exemptions and is protected as a registered design, such protection is not infringed by its use for “the repair of a complex product so as to restore its original appearance”. This would cover the 3D printing of a part such as a car wing panel that was normally visible and not wholly constrained in design by its function or fit, but which had to be replicated in order to maintain the vehicle’s original appearance.

However this whole field is further complicated by copyright and patents but the conclusion by the authors states:

…within the UK at least – personal use of 3D printing technology does not infringe the majority of IP rights. Registered design and patent explicitly exempt personal use, trade mark law has been interpreted as doing so, and UDR is only applicable to commercial use. There is no such exemption for copyright, but the CDPA 1988 has been interpreted so as to provide numerous instances where copyright does not subsist for certain 3D items or is substantially shortened…. 

…Legal measures (against this) might entail removing the personal use exemptions for registered designs, or making UDR enforceable against any copying. However, doing so would require amending the underlying EC Directive and would seriously prejudice the right of individuals to repair products they own.

So as long as an item is for personal use, and even shared there seems to be quite a bit of leeway for 3D printing of ‘replacement parts’, there also seems to be some room to move in the selling of 3d printed ‘replacement parts’ according to the papers authors interpretation of UK law.  Of course the laws may be different in your country or state…

I strongly recommend anyone interested in 3D printing read this paper and please do let us know what you think.  It is early days for the democratization of design tools so it is interesting to see how things will proceed. For previous discussions on the Shapeways blog check out Joris’s very funny and hotly debated I Love Threadless & IP Rights as well as The democratization of manufacturing, design residuals and IP (also funny and informative).

Image by 姒儿喵喵

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Shapeways Designer Evangelist
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