Stories of new uses for 3D printing
seem to appear almost daily, as the technology finds its way into
everything from cases for mobile phones to firearms. As it moves
from industrial settings into classrooms, homes and beyond, this
transformative technology challenges intellectual property
What can be copied and reproduced?
Conversely, how can products be protected against unwanted copying
There are no intellectual property
provisions exclusively dedicated to 3D printing. Rather, depending
on the context, 3D printing may engage any one or more of
copyright, trademarks, industrial designs and patents.
Copyright protects works that are
the product of creative expression. In other fields, copyright
protects anything from literary works to computer software. With 3D
printing, copyright may exist in some CAD files used to reproduce
an object (when created by a person), or in the artistic design of
the object itself. However, copyright contains an unusual exception
for designs applied to "useful articles". When a useful
article featuring a copyrighted design is reproduced more than 50
times, copyright protection is effectively lost. There are still
further exceptions to this exception, which are best left to a more
Industrial designs (called
"design patents" in the United States) safeguard the
visual features of shape, configuration, pattern or ornament
– or any combination of these features – applied to a
finished article. Crucially, industrial designs cannot be obtained
for features of a "useful article" that are dictated
solely by utilitarian function. Designs only protect the ornamental
aspects of a product. Nevertheless, industrial designs may be
critically important in preventing copying of a product, since 3D
scanning and printing of commercial articles is likely to closely
mimic the shape of finished products.
Trademark law protects words,
designs, symbols and even shapes that serve to distinguish the
source of goods. Trade dress is a particularly interesting issue,
with the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle being the classic example.
Naturally, printing replica bottles and unauthorized selling of an
off-brand soda is certain to attract unwanted interest. But in the
electronics sphere, printing circuit boards with distinctive marks
or shapes may also attract liability. However, even subtle
alterations of the design could be sufficient to avoid infringement
in some cases. Moreover, 3D printing for personal, private uses may
be capable of avoiding trademark infringement.
Finally, 3D printing also forces
consideration of patents. The making of a patented article may be
an infringement of product claims, even if the claims predate the
widespread use of 3D printers. In addition, the process by which an
article is made may, in some cases, infringe method or process
Few areas of commercial activity
have the potential to engage and challenge so many types of
intellectual property, and it is wise to consider all aspects of
intellectual property – and consult with an expert –
when bringing 3D printers into the manufacturing workflow, or when
developing products that have the potential of being copied by 3D
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.
Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.
A recent Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench decision allowed a court-appointed receiver to sell and transfer intellectual property rights free and clear of encumbrances, finding that a license to use improvements of an invention was a contractual interest and not a property interest.
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).