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3D Printing - Opportunity or Threat for Designers?

Published 09.05.14 at 12:19

The age of 3D printers is upon us. Many are calling this phenomenon the 'next industrial revolution'[1]. While 3D printing technology has been around since the 1980s, it is only now that developments into the mass consumer market are beginning to emerge. A new industry can provide for a sea of opportunities but there are concerns as to the impact this may have on small design businesses and whether intellectual property ('IP') law provides sufficient protection.

The increased availability means a huge drop in prices of 3D printers, such that printers like the RepRap machine which are able to self-replicate only cost around £499. This is affordable for both small businesses and home users. The floodgates are subsequently opened for the target customers of small design businesses to become their own manufacturers, thus potentially causing major losses to these businesses. A small business that invests time and money in creating new designs can lose out entirely if a consumer is able to simply print the product out for free at home. Registered and unregistered design rights may not give sufficient protection in light of personal-use exemptions. Further, the manufacture of counterfeit products, usually sold at a huge discount, may become more difficult to control. It could be more of a bane than a boon to chase after such infringers.

Nevertheless, 3D printing opens an array of possibilities for small businesses that were previously not deemed to be cost-efficient. For example, the production of prototypes and test subjects are more readily accessible with the aid of 3D printers. Designers can now instantly produce a model of their design in a physical form and assess its practical implications, in turn allowing them to perfect their products. The elimination of middlemen, manufacturers and suppliers not only assists small businesses in saving time and costs, it also avoids the need keep stocks of products, as they can simply print on demand. Also, purchasing the official product or blueprint from the business will guarantee the good quality that is often absent in counterfeit products. Furthermore, mass marketing of 3D printers will create a culture of innovation. Businesses will be able to incorporate new ideas into their designs overnight. This allows products to develop much more quickly, creating a greater demand for innovation and in turn encouraging market competition.

One of the most highly anticipated concerns lies in the blueprint design files and their illegal distribution online. The implications of online file sharing could prove devastating to small businesses that rely heavily on the everyday consumer. Small businesses' blueprints may well be protected through copyright as an artistic and literary piece, or trade mark by embedding their sign onto the product. However, once the blueprint file enters the online file sharing community, it will be difficult to control its distribution and prevent IP infringements. One only needs to look at the transformation of the music industry to see the effect that digital media can have on a market[2]. So whilst the law technically works to protect from such infringements, a small business may not have the funds to enforce its rights against online file sharing.

However, there are a number of ways in which small design businesses can work innovatively and capitalise on a whole new market. Even with limited funds, it can benefit from the sale of blueprints, rather than the finished product, direct to the consumer. In an age of customisation and 'one-click purchases', small businesses can also enjoy opportunities to offer services that allow consumers to customise products and purchase the finished blueprint that has been created for them. In doing so, they can also cut costs of raw materials since the consumer will be printing the product at home. Indeed, the success of media libraries such as 'iTunes' indicates that consumers do purchase authorised digital files provided the service is efficient, convenient and prices are reasonable.

Further, Digital Rights Management ('DRM') software has already been developed in an attempt to combat 3D blueprint piracy. Software developed by Authentise, for example, works by sending the purchased blueprint in fragments directly to the consumer's 3D printer; the fragments are then automatically deleted after use, allowing the blueprint to be used only once.

As raised above, even when small businesses have IP protection for their products or blueprints, the enforcement of those IP rights can be costly. Whether it is an infringement of copyright by online sharing of the blueprint or an infringement of design right by printing a protected product, a small business with a relatively low income may be unable to monitor and enforce its rights against every infringing consumer.

Nevertheless, the potential litigation that may arise from such technology could work in favour of small businesses. Larger corporations do have the funds to pursue lengthy and costly litigation. Indeed, large corporations recently forced popular piracy site, IsoHunt[3], to shut down and pay around £68 million for infringing copyright; the same could happen with websites that provide for the illegal download of blueprints. Small businesses would benefit greatly from such litigation, as the removal of large piracy websites would reduce the chance of their blueprints being illegally distributed online. There is still a concern about the time it takes to enforce such measures and whether a small business will be able to sustain the market conditions until then.

The rise of 3D printing is potentially as revolutionary as the ability to access any information instantly in front of a computer screen. But there lie ahead major threats for small businesses in a market that is set (once again) to transform how IP is commercialised. Small design businesses may well have to change their business models, but they are free to exploit the developments to become worthy competitors in a new industry. Only time will tell whether the 3D printer will serve to create a rich industry or whether it will ignite an uncontrollable chaos of IP infringement potentially forcing legislators to adapt IP laws.

Article by Felix Chong and Zeinab Harb, students at BPP Law School.

Photograph (some rights reserved) by Creative Tools


[1] http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128236.100-3d-printing-the-technology-that-changes-everything.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-20137791

[2] Dr Dinusha Mendis, 'The clone wars: The rise of 3D printing and its implications for intellectual property - learning lessons from the past? (2013) 35(3) E.I.P.R 155-169

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24580130

 

Please note that this article discusses the legal position in the UK at the time of publication. It provides general information only but is not to be regarded as legal advice. You must take advice from a specialist lawyer in relation to your specific circumstances. Further, you should seek additional legal advice when dealing with parties based in other parts of the world or works originating from other parts of the world as the legal position may vary.

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