As the availability of low-cost high performing 3D printers is becoming more accessible to industry and households alike, what does this mean for the IP behind the things we are printing?

 

The range of products that we can 3D print and the range of materials we can print in are growing steadily. It’s no longer merely plastic or metal objects but also now edible steaks or a graphene aerogel, with further scope expected to come in the next few years.

 

You can see why 3D printing has the publicity it does – products can be formed quickly and on-demand, and customized for the end-user, as-and-when they are needed. These days it’s quite simple to go from design to print a physical object. The 3D printing process starts with either a digital model file produced with CAD software or a 3D scanner that creates a digital model file of a physical object. The digital model file is then exported to 3D printing software which formulates the model into a set of instructions for each layer of printing. The printer then adds material layer by layer until the finished object emerges.

 

Further, it’s so simple these days to get your hands on someone else’s digital file and let the computer and printer take care of the rest. Almost anyone can do it with the right tools, anywhere in the world, without even the need to be skilled at CAD. This is where the bulk of IP issues arise. One of the main concerns about 3D printing is that it makes it technically possible to copy almost any object, with or without authorization of the rights holder for that object. Comparatively, this is the physical-object revolution akin to the Napster-esque P2P file-sharing of the early 2000s which caused a lot of copyright infringement problems for the music industry. In practice, the same file-sharing systems may even be used to distribute the digital model files for the end-users to print, and policing infringement and enforcing against even a moderate number of (small-scale) infringers would be a logistical nightmare.

 

This brings up questions as to whether our IP laws are fit for purpose in a world of ever-increasing digitization. Specifically, does a patent claim to a product also encompasses its digital twin or the corresponding 3D printer file? It will be interesting to see if the case law develops in this area, particularly between different jurisdictions. If it is likely your product may be pirated, it may be prudent to include patent claims for the digital twin as well as your physical product. We’ll continue to watch this topic with interest in the future.