Recent advances in 3-D printing technology made it possible to create highly detailed and accurate three dimensional objects of everything from fine art paintings to anatomical structures. As discussed earlier on the blog, it is a rapidly advancing technology with a potential revenue of an estimated $3.1 billion by 2016.
But as with any new technological innovation, 3-D printing raises important intellectual property questions that may not have been foreseen at the time the technology was developed. For example, creating exact replicas of artistic masterpieces (such as Van Gogh or Rembrant) may be really useful for fine art restoration and conservation techniques but it also causes concern over the ability to forge these works of art on a large scale. Similarly, sculptors are concerned that their original works (protected by copyright) can be easily reproduced using 3-D printing technology.
Although the cost of 3-D printing is currently prohibitively high, most experts believe that the expiration of key patents in 2014 will cause a great drop in the cost of this technology, particularly because cheaper printers from China will be allowed on the market. The widespread availability of the technology bring with it increased concerns about intellectual property rights infringement. There are four main areas of IP law that may be infringed when using a 3-D printer:
1. Copyrights that protect artistic works.
2. Design patents (you can learn more about design patents here)
3. Patents covering innovative technologies
4. Registered trademarks
So how can the casual (non-commercial) user of 3-D printing infringe on any of these IP rights? Take for example the man who created a prosthetic for his 12 year old son. Luckily for our hero, the design plans that he used for creating the prosthetic were not patented. But what if they were? What if he used the same design as a patented prosthetic limb? He would be liable for patent infringement under the U.S. Patent Act because anyone who “makes or uses” a patented object automatically infringes the patent.
Do you like that Louis Vuitton iPhone case that costs more than a month’s rent and would match your new gold iPhone 5s? If you had a 3-D printer you could make your own for mere dollars. Not so fast. You could be infringing on LV’s design patents and trademarks. Although an element of trademark infringement is “use in commerce”, the meaning of the phrase has expanded significantly to include “dilution” of famous marks. So essentially any unauthorized public use of the famous mark constitutes trademark infringement in the eyes of the law. With the large fashion conglomerate being notoriously litigious and protective of its brands it would be ill advised to “MacGyver” your own famous brand knockoffs using 3-D printers.
The law is always playing catch up with new technology and 3-D printing is no exception. The full extent of its effects on IP law remain to be seen. For now, however, there are many exciting gray areas that can be explored.
About Alis Anita Manaila – Alis.NYC@gmail.com
Alis Anita Manaila earned her J.D. from St. John’s University Law School and her LL.M. in Intellectual Property From Benjamin Cardozo Law School. She also earned a B.A. in Chemistry from New York University. Alis is interested in all matters of Intellectual Property law, but she especially goes crazy over anything related to patent law and science.