3d printing

The Battle over the Next Great Disruptive Technology

By Francesca Filipo and Martina Clochiatti

A 3D printer turns a blueprint into a physical object, built up layer by layer with a computer aided design program (CAD) simply running on your desktop computer.

Since 3D printers turned 3D printing professional services into low cost and on demand facilities, a wide range of products can be easily designed and manufactured at home. Any type of design can be found on the net where 3D printing communities share their files. No matter how it is created, once the CAD design exists it can be widely distributed just like any other computer file.

In many ways today’s 3D printing community resembles the open source community of the early 1990s. There is no central institution giving directions: users themselves invest time and thought in the evolutionary process. They are a relatively small, technically proficient group sharing their creations.

Popular websites like thingverse.com or shapeways.com where anyone may upload and download the design of a number of items were immediately facing IP rights infringement claims.

Recently, Moulinsart, which owns the rights to the cartoon Tintin, served Thingiverse with a Millennium Digital Copyright Act takedown notice. Thingiverse has been forced to remove a design individually developed by an user and freely inspired to Tintin character.

The same happened for the famous Star Wars Yoda character that, despite being turned into different objects, still represents a copyright infringement. The bust of Yoda is not something that you can duplicate or re-elaborate: “Even when designers take an object like that and change it, it's still legally protected”, as Disney legal team said.

Copyright, designs, patents and registered trademarks are the four IP classes that may be infringed by using a 3D printer. Many of these issues have already been discussed with regard to file-shared music and movies. Although 3D printing of copyrighted objects at home may constitute an infringement, the copyright will become increasingly impractical or impossible to enforce.

Technically, a consumer who copies a work by printing an already existing object will be liable for copyright infringement unless the consumer has permission from the copyright owner or only privately uses the printed object.

In this context the majors industries are trying to fight back the new digital era developments by strengthening IP rights, however it is undeniable that at some point a compromise will be necessary.