For those who don't know what 3D printing is, it is an understatement for
me to say that you have probably missed out on hearing about this decade's
(dare I say century's?) biggest innovation and invention.
There are printers that print images 3D to the eye. But this is not what
people normally refer to as 3D Printers. Put very simply, 3D Printers take
images and virtual designs made using computer software and then produce
physical 3D objects based on these images. Sounds amazing? It is. (You can
see demos of how this is done on YouTube.)
With growing development and use of 3D printers and materials that can be
used for the products, its convergence with the legal world is increasingly
Analyzing a hypothetical
Take a situation where your child wants a toy, say a Barbie. All parents
will attest that children's toys are now ridiculously expensive. Instead of
going out and buying one, you use an image of a Barbie doll and make a
replica relatively simply using designing software on a computer and get
the 3D printer to make the product for you. You save money, the cost of
travel, taxes, and you also have the satisfaction of making the toy
yourself, and knowing you can make several others.
As a lawyer what immediately strikes you as odd about the hypothetical
- Assuming that the Barbie doll is protected by copyright, there is clear
cut copyright infringement. In any situation where the product is being
made as a replica of what already exists in the physical world, it is the
copying of an expression rather than an idea. If so, will the makers of the
3D Printer be held liable for contributory infringement? (A similar
argument can be made for patent and design infringement and use of
trademarks on products).
- Further, if the product is a children's toy such as a doll, are the
materials used safe for children? In other words, what are the product
liability issues involved? And who is help liable? The person designing the
product? The company supplying the materials for the 3D Printer? Will the
makers of the 3D Printer be held liable for contributing to the making of
Supporters and Opposition
All over the world now, and especially in the US, there have been
increasing discussions on what sort of policy ought to be framed for use of
the 3D printer. The momentum has increased because of several reasons, but
the competing themes are largely supporting free innovation and fear.
(1) A fear that intellectual property laws will be infringed more than ever
before. The situation is reminiscent of the Betamax, Napster, Grokster and
Torrent cases where there is a definite use of this article of commerce
for "substantially non-infringing uses", but is impossible that the makers
of 3D Printers will have no knowledge that their product could be used to
create infringing items.
(2) A fear that sky is the limit when it comes to 3D printing. While this
may seem out of place as a negative aspect, there is a very real
possibility that 3D printers could be used for purposes far more dangerous
than first envisioned. There already there are organizations that are
aiming to produce weapons such as low cost guns using 3D printing. Will
they need gun licenses? How can any government keep track of such
However for the same reason that sky is the limit, makers of 3D printers
believe that this invention will revolutionize the manufacture of products
- leaving it in the hands of a common man without a college degree or
specialist knowledge in design or engineering. Several makers of 3D
printers also believe that this will spur innovation beyond anyone's
imagination, and would like it to be open source.
The main concern I believe will be because private non-commercial use of
products even if infringing are usually ignored by right holders. If 3D
printing is used in every home for nearly every need, as I believe it will
be one day, this private use will wipe out market transactions and
drastically affect the economy forcing right-holders, legislators and
courts to re-consider their position on private on-commercial uses.
Construction of products using 3D design has already begun and several uses
(and patent applications) have been started in different areas including
bone augmentation and structure or, if you're Google, 3D printed pasta!
Intellectual Property Ventures has already filed a patent application for a
software that detects whether the product being produced infringes any
known intellectual property rights. There are arguments that this sort of
software can be hacked easily, but at least it is a start.
For those who believe that there ought not to be any copyright infringement
at all in cases where the creator is not the company owning the copyright,
rightly or wrongly - this is not the position of the law today. Where works
are created independently of the copyright owner but with the knowledge
that a similar or same article exists, there is usually no defence to
copyright infringement. (Similar arguments apply to trademark and design
infringement. In case of patent infringement, independent creation is no
Perhaps just like the DMCA and Chapters 12 and 13 of the Information
Technology Act in India, there needs to be exceptions carved out
statutorily determining who can be held liable with infringing uses of 3D
So, just as the internet, 3D Printing will cause problems, but will
undoubtedly solve numerous more. Even if you are currently sitting in
opposition, think quick; there is no escaping the truth.
3D printing is tomorrow's reality.
And India needs to get a headstart and bracing itself for tomorrow.
(For those interested in seeing more policy discussions, read this and
watch this and this).
Posted By Kruttika Vijay to SPICY IP at 11/10/2012 02:47:00 AM