Will 3D Printing Destroy the Copyright in Manufacturing Industry?

by baixuege

Although the earliest 3D printing technologies were visible in the 1980s, little attention was paid at that time. Since the first commercial 3D printer has entered public consciousness and been offered to sale in 2009, 3D printing has become more common and available. It is applied not only in the military, engineering, and automotive, but also many other industries. There are even 3D printing workshops in big cities like New York and London. It is possible now for everyone to print materials as they like with the 3D printer. In the foreseeable future, 3D printers may follow the steps of personal computers, and it is not impossible that families will have their own 3D printer. That is amazing and convenient, but potential problems also come along.

Any of the various processes used to print an object in three-dimensional form is regarded as 3D printing. Different 3D printing processes involve different technologies and materials. Basically, the start point is a 3D digital model. This can be done with various kinds of 3D software programs or scanning an existing item by a scanner system. The most widely used process is Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM). The FDM process melts plastic material and puts it together layer by layer on the build platform to print the object according to the 3D model that has been supplied to the 3D printer. Another popular method is named Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). SLS uses lasers to fuse the powdered material selectively to form the three-dimensional object and gets the end product after cleaning the excess powder. As previously mentioned, no matter which method is used in the print process, the original object or a 3D design is needed. From the file preparation to the final printed object, intellectual property rights exist all the way round and are being potentially infringed.

Obviously, customers are able to manufacture dishes, spectacle frames, toys, accessories and so on. As the technology is getting more mature, it will be possible for customers to print a chair, a table, and even a boat or a car using 3D printing in the future. The technology is developing more quickly than the law. Some scholars predict 3D printing will have an impact on the manufacturing industry similar to that of MP3 files on the music industry. Sharing the 3D data files and printing the objects by the 3D printer will lead to countless similar or even exact copies of the original designs and products. What is worse, by downloading an MP3 file you just get a copy, you cannot say that this song is written by you. But after downloading the 3D data file and printing it, you can say the product is made by you in some way.

The intellectual property rights can be infringed by a 3D data designer, the website in which are the files shared, and anyone who prints the object. Patent and copyright of the designs can hardly be protected in the digital environment, and now it is not just the people and company who owned the machines and technology who have the means to copy the copyright works.

The law is perhaps easier clearest in respect of patents. In most jurisdictions, an infringement of patent rights may occur where the defendant has made, used, sold, offered to sell, or imported an infringing invention or its equivalent. Under this definition, anyone using the 3D printer to print a patented item would be an infringer.

Copyright is vulnerable even when the 3D data have been put online. File-sharing and any methods used for unauthorized dissemination will potentially injure the copyright of the first designer and printer. It provides access to people who might be able to copy the authorized works by 3D printer. However the judicial system cannot monitor every individual’s behavior. It seems impossible to prevent the infringements only by law.

But there is also a positive side to the problem. Copying and infringing do not bring legal injuries only, attendant technology developments occur. Driven by the potential infringements that can be hardly prevented, new security measures around IT databases may soon be developed. Basically, the system functions by making the data unavailable in personal computer terminals. Updated and unique materials in the manufacturing process would be indispensable. For instance, it is unreasonable for a family to have the material to print all the components of a car. Obstructions to potential infringements will therefore be set up technically. Besides the law, every industry has its own internal regulation, the problems that brought by the technology always can be solved by the technology.

3D printing seems to be trying to destroy the manufacturing industry in a constantly updated way. Existing legislation is not enough to follow up the developments. Where the law is blank, maybe the technologies against infringements should dominate.

Bai Xuege
Assistant Editor, QMJIP