3D printing & Intellectual Property: what you need to know

July 20, 2015

20 July 2015, London

The ability to easily, quickly and cheaply design and manufacture items is no longer just a pipe dream – 3D printing is becoming part of everyday life for domestic users, independent designers and large scale manufactures alike. 3D printing offers a multitude of opportunities. Rapid prototyping, spare part production and customisation are all being revolutionised and industries ranging from fashion & luxury goods to biomedical sciences to aerospace are all taking advantage. But a myriad of intellectual property issues lurk just below the surface…

Can I 3D print whatever I want?

If you are 3D printing an article which you designed, there’s no problem. If you are 3D printing an article which was originally designed by someone else, you may well be infringing their IP rights. The original designer could for instance own registered and unregistered design rights in the shape and appearance of the article; and a separate copyright in the CAD file for that article. If you 3D print such an article without the original designer’s consent, you could be infringing those rights. If the article also bears a third party’s trade mark, you could be infringing that trade mark if you were then to offer or sell the article.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. Firstly, design rights and copyright only last for a certain period of time (ranging from 3 years up to 70 years after the death of the creator, depending on the right).

If protection has expired, then the article can be freely copied. Secondly, design protection is usually not available for spare or component parts, so these can sometimes be freely copied.

Finally, there are certain exemptions where articles are made solely for private and/or for non-commercial purposes.

If I pay to download a 3D design file (i.e. a CAD file) from the internet, do I have the right to 3D print an article to that design?

Not necessarily. It still depends on whether you have the consent of the original designer. Just as with downloading music / films, there are certain websites from which you can download authorised files and others where the files are unauthorised.

Note that copyright can subsist in the CAD file itself (as distinct from any design right in the article embodied in that CAD file). Just as with music and film files, file sharing without the consent of the copyright owner is unlawful.

Am I ok to use a 3D scanner to create my own CAD file?

It depends on what you are scanning. If you are scanning someone else’s article without their permission, then the 3D printing of the resulting CAD file could still infringe their rights.

What about customising an existing design?

Depending on the extent of the changes you make, you may still be infringing the rights in the underlying original design. It is a question of degree; the more substantial your changes, the lower the risk of infringement.

How can I protect my own original designs?

There are a variety of rights, registered and unregistered, which may be available to you. For designs that are particularly important, get them registered to give more robust, longer protection. Other designs can still benefit from the limited protection offered by unregistered rights, but it’s important to keep comprehensive evidence of their creation.

Originally published in DesignWrites 6th Edition.