3D printers develop and become more popular day by day with the recent developments in technology. Beyond the production of ordinary product by 3D printers, there are studies on the production of buildings, 3D printer itself or viscus formed with living cells. As a result of the expansion in 3D printer use, components of 3D printing need to be legally analyzed.
3D printers print the products by using digital three dimensional model of that product. Three dimensional model of the product may be created by scanning the existing product with 3D scanner (reverse engineering), designing/drawing the product by 3D modelling software or basically taking pictures of the product from different angles etc. The crucial part is that such a "creating activity" shall not necessarily be performed by a person, it can be automatically performed by devices. Digital model that is created shall usually be stored in a CAD (computer aided design) file. CAD file is downloaded to the 3D printer in a printable format (by converting into STL) and the relevant product shall be printed layer by layer (additive-manufacturing).
In such a case, the first encounter of 3D printer with intellectual property law (this term shall mean copyright, designs and patents in this article) shall be when the CAD file is created1. First question is "shall the file content or the outcome of 3D printer be protected?" where there is a CAD file is in discussion. The position of a CAD file according to intellectual property law shall guide for lightening the answer of this question. So, it is necessary to make an evaluation by considering the different versions of a CAD file (such as a design/drawing created by software or 3D scanning of the product).
First of all, we may examine the drawing which is created by a CAD program and assume that this drawing is considered as a work within the scope of Law on Intellectual and Artistic Works ("LIAW"). In that case, such a CAD file shall be accepted as a work since it is actually a numerical expression of a work. Therefore, reproduction of this work by printing it from a 3D printer shall be subject to the provisions of LIAW and the authorization of the designer/ Author of the CAD file.
Secondly, we may examine the CAD file created by 3D scanning and assume that the product which is scanned is considered as a work. In that case, the work shall be identically copied, reproduced when the CAD file is created. In accordance with the provisions of LIAW, it is not possible to copy, reproduce a work and/or make it public without the authorization of its author. Therefore, copying the work by aforementioned means shall not give any rights under LIAW, on the contrary, anyone who copies, scans the work shall be infringing the copyrights of the author.
On the other hand, in cases where content of the CAD file, which is created by scanning, is not accepted as a work, the question of whether the file itself is a work, can also be discussed. This type of CAD file basically converts an existing product into an identical "numerical data". Therefore, authenticity of such a CAD file in terms of LIAW, shall be controversial. Since such CAD files can also be created by devices automatically, it is also controversial as to who their author shall be. From this aspect, it is often not possible to conclude that such a CAD file bears the characteristics of its author and that it is considered as Work within the scope of LIAW.
In cases where a CAD drawing or a product scanned in 3D is a new design which also has distinctive character, the protection of design rights under the Industrial Property Law ("IPL") may be considered. Unregistered designs may also benefit from LIAW protection, regardless of whether they carry the aforementioned qualities.
While defining the scope of the design right, the IPL specified that third parties may not produce, market, sell, commercially use or retain the protected design or the product which the design is applied on. Consequently, creating a CAD file by scanning the design, printing it by using a CAD file or sharing that CAD file with third parties shall result in violation of such design right.
Unlike protection of a product under copyright and design rights, patent protection may be discussed in cases where technical components of the product need to be protected.
Technical drawings of a product which is subject of a patent may be drawn on a CAD program or such product may be scanned and converted into a CAD file. Pursuant to the provisions of the IPL, the patent holder has the right to prevent the indirect use of invention. The relevant article of the IPL is as follows; "the patent holder has the right to prevent the production of the product subject to the patent and to prevent the equipment regarding a part which makes the practice of the invention possible and constitutes the basis of the invention, from being released by third parties to parties who do not have an authority to use the invention". In this context, printing by using the CAD file and sharing the CAD file with third parties shall result in infringement of a patent right.
Personal use of CAD / STL files within the scope of intellectual property law should be separately discussed. Today, there are so many web sites available on the internet which sell CAD or STL files for hundreds of products. Furthermore, it is possible to download such files for free from many websites. The sale or making available of CAD or STL files on the websites without the permission, authorization or license of the author, design or patent holder, may also constitute direct or indirect violations of such rights.
1 The protection of the 3D printer itself or the CAD program under intellectual property law is not covered by this article.
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.