An IP office perspective on 3D printing

The UKIPO has published the findings of a study into the IP implications of 3D printing, presenting a number of recommendations for government and industry on how to prepare for the future

On January 20 2015 the UK Intellectual Property Office published the findings of its report on 3D printing, A Legal and Empirical Study into the Intellectual Property Implications of 3D Printing. With the technology still far from the mainstream, the fact that an IP office is taking a proactive approach to the subject and commissioning research to identify future challenges is positive. While it may not have identified an urgent need for legislative change or action, the report offers some important insights into both current 3D printing trends and the issues that brand owners should be thinking about for the future.

The research takes a two-pronged approach to the subject. The first part focuses on the copyright implications arising from access to, and use of, online platforms, together with an overview of three such sites (Thingiverse, 123D and GrabCad). The second part then analyses how such platforms operate, based on data extracted from 17 sites dedicated to the sharing of designs for 3D printing. It also includes six case studies which examine the potential consequences of additive manufacturing and 3D printing in various sectors, focusing on replacement parts, customised goods and ‘high-value, low-status’ goods.

Several trends are apparent from the report’s analysis of different platforms, offering useful insights into those industries which have been early adopters of the technology and how files are currently disseminated. For instance:

  • files tagged ‘fashion’ attract a higher number of views and downloads, while files with labels such as ‘art’ and ‘robot’ are marketed at higher prices;
  • files tagged ‘miniature’, ‘art’ and ‘jewellery’ are more prevalent, suggesting that the hobby and leisure sectors are early adopters;
  • the number of downloads is unrelated to price; and
  • the number of views and downloads also depends on the choice of platform and the type of brand/product involved. As an example, it points to “iPhone-labelled files, which attract more downloads and views”.

The study concludes that there is no urgency to regulate 3D printing – in fact, it notes that “a premature call for legislative and judicial action in the realm of 3D printing could stifle the public interest of fostering creativity and innovation and the right of manufacturers and content creators to protect their livelihoods”. However, it does recommend that steps be taken to cultivate a climate better suited to tackle impending IP issues.

From a government perspective, the report calls for clearer guidance on whether a computer-aided design (CAD) file can be protected by copyright.

There is also advice for both intermediaries and online platforms and wider industry. With respect to the former, the report observes that 65% of users engaged in 3D printing activities on online platforms do not license their work, and recommends that platforms promote awareness and understanding of the different types of licence available: “This can be achieved by explaining the nuances relating to each licence in clear and simple language, rather than simply ‘encouraging’ the user to adopt a particular type of licence. Furthermore, online platforms can assign the most appropriate licence as a default with ‘opt-out’ as an option.”

For industry, the report identifies both opportunities and risks. One recommendation is that industry adopt secure streaming of 3D CAD files via an application programming interface, enabling access to a ‘pay-per-print’ business model: “This is already in operation amongst companies such as Authentise9, Secure3D20, ToyFabb. This business model removes the need for a CAD file to be sent to the consumer; instead the build instructions are sent directly to the printer, which, in turn, prints out the number of objects that have been purchased. This can be particularly effective for the customised goods industry.” Additionally, the report suggests that manufacturers consider licensing CAD files more widely, potentially to outlets selling 3D CAD files.

More specifically, players in the automotive industry are urged to give thought to the traceability of 3D printed spare parts, particularly in relation to their safety and usability.

At present, there is still some breathing room for counsel. The report acknowledges that it is early days for the technology and that this itself is acting as a brake on what individuals – and potential infringers – can achieve. Put simply, accessible 3D printing machines as yet do not allow for the creation of goods of such quality and variation that would facilitate widespread counterfeiting.

However, the study also notes that this could quickly change, with consumer-orientated software tools expected to come onstream in the coming years that will enhance consumers’ technical capabilities and make printing in the home and community a common phenomenon. The takeaway? Start thinking about the impact of this technology – and what can be done both to benefit and to minimise abuse from wider adoption – now, rather than being caught on the hop.

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