The Printing Revolution – Challenges of 3D Printing on Intellectual Property

3D Printing

3D printing is not new to the market. But what is new to the market is the commercial viability of owning one, which makes IP infringements quite easy. What a 3D printer essentially does is convert a software file into a three-dimensional product. This software file is called a computer-aided design file (“CADF”). This CADF is available online and anyone can share it across the internet. There is another device in the market called the 3D scanner, which can scan any 3D device and create its CADF file, which when sent to a printer will print the scanned product in its 3D format. The 3D printer has the capacity to violate patents, trademarks, and copyrights. How so, is explained below.

3D Printing and Patents

Every product ever invented will inevitably have a patent registered on it, which will have a life as well. The problem of 3D printers does not arise when the product so printed either does not have a patent or that patent has expired. But there is a case of patent violation if a patented product is printed using 3D printers. The major advantages of even owning a patent are that others are prevented from creating the product (except with the permission of the inventor), which would increase the profits of the inventor, and also help against the competitors. The investor loses on the commercial viability of his product for every product that is printed without the consent of the inventor.

3D Printing and Trademarks

Trademarks refer to the protections guaranteed to a name, logo, or phrase to distinguish sellers from each other. The practical connotation attached to a trademark is that it has to be first used, which will help in case of any disputes. The trademark can also be registered. Once products are printed using the 3D printer, these products can also be sold. If these products are affixed with the trademark of any company whose reputation precedes it, in so far as the product is concerned, then there is a trademark violation. But at the same time, there is natural protection if the trademark violation is for private purposes, according to Article 6 of the TRIPS Agreement.

3D Printing and Design

Design protection refers to the visual appeal that a product has and can be protected in India via Section 2(D) of the Designs Act, 2000. If a product has its design registered, then the printing of the product using a 3D printer (without the consent of the trademark owner) could amount to an infringement of the design right as well.

3D Printing and Copyrights

Copyright is granted to any dramatic, literary, artistic, musical, photograph, or cinematograph work as a protection for the author of the author. The author has the full right to showcase his work as deemed fit. These copyrights can be both registered and unregistered. In the context of 3D printers, literary, dramatic, musical, photograph, cinematograph work is irrelevant. Even certain artistic works such as paintings might be out of the question. This is because the aforementioned works are two-dimensional or do not even have a dimension (such as songs or movies). Having said that, however, copyrights can be affected by 3D printing when the original art piece is reproduced using a 3D printer. There are some other cases where 3D printing does not cause a copyright violation, such as 

  • When there is no copying done when it comes to the printing – Generally speaking, the 3D printers are used by those who create an original design and want to produce it. The original design is made as a CADF and then allowed to be printed, upon which intellectual property rights are granted. 
  • When works in the public domain are printed – This is when the works that have lost their copyright are printed, such as that of the Eiffel Tower. But it has to be noted that the current 3D printers cannot make all that is necessary to build a life-like model of the Eiffel Tower because of the size, it can however make a miniature of the same.
  • When works that are not copyrightable are printed – These works include generic but useful works such as furniture and fittings. However, one has to be careful that whatever product is ultimately being printed using the 3D printer does not have some sort of a unique design or some identifying feature, for those details can be copyrighted. Copying those would mean a violation of copyright.
  • When the 3D printing is done with the consent of the author – This goes without saying.

The CADF when used for printing in an unauthorized manner can also be considered to be a violation of copyright. The author of the CADF can send a takedown notice asking for the website to remove the file. Moreover, the CADF can also be considered to be a derivative, which is a copyright violation.

One of the important points to be noted herein is that in the case of 3D printers the rights overlap quite a bit. Each product has multiple rights and can hence have various intellectual property protections for each of those facets. But as far as 3D printing is concerned, the original source of the product to be printed is a file, a copyrightable item, which when converted through the printer into a product is a patentable product. One of the solutions offered is that of putting a fee for private copying, but it is still debated because there is a belief that it would stifle 3D printing altogether. Some countries have laws that allow for an individual’s personal use of the products.

The Problems Associated

3D Printer

Like any product, there are both good and bad to 3D printing. Whether the aforementioned intellectual property violations actually take place, is a good question. The problem is that if a product is being printed for personal use, then according to some countries’ laws, there is no violation, because the commercial viability is not affected. But that would mean that multiple individuals can use a 3D printer without any repercussions, so there has to be a line drawn somewhere. Moreover, finding out who these apparent violators are and then taking them to a task is a cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive process, particularly when people use these printed products for private reasons. 

Another problem is that of the sheer range of products that one can print using a 3D printer. The major ethical issue rises here, for one could print a toy or one could print a fully functional gun. This is a scary scenario. But all hope is not lost, for there are companies who are starting to understand the commercial viability of using a 3D printer, which saves them a lot of money. Aprecia Pharmaceutical is a company that has developed a pill for epilepsy patients and has used 3D printers for the same. This pill has even been approved by the Food Development Authority of the USA, which has previously allowed for 3D printing of medical devices and prosthetics. But what is to be noted here is that in these cases there is no violation of any intellectual property. The protection for these products is granted in such a way that 3D printing is a mere production technique, as opposed to it being a way of counterfeiting actual products.

In another case, the popular “My Little Pony” owner Hasbro decided to open up their intellectual property to allow 3D printing of its products. This means that all the fans can print their own versions of these characters and even sell these products. 3D printing even debuted at the New York Fashion Week, when a dress by threeASFOUR was completely printed using a 3D printer. Another interesting problem that 3D printing poses are that of product liability. If a product is manufactured using a 3D printer is defective, the assignment of liability proves tricky, for the question that arises is whether the actual manufacturer is liable, or the person who used the 3D printer to make that product.


There are plenty of questions when it comes to 3D printing. To quite an extent 3D printing can be read into laws. One thing which is made absolutely clear is that 3D printing is allowed when the consent of the author/inventor/owner is obtained and when the owner himself/herself uses the 3D printer for manufacturing the products. But when the products printed are not that of the owner, the question of infringement arises, along with the other aforementioned ones. To resolve these questions, there has to be apt legal action. The questions of possible infringement of intellectual property, product liability, and scope of usage of 3D printers are all legal fiction, and hence only if the issue is debated upon either by the legislature or the judiciary, we will be able to ascertain plausible solutions. 

In that process, it must not be forgotten that a 3D printer is not a bane. It is cost-effective, less time-consuming, easily customizable, and also reduces waste (which is environmentally friendly). All the advantages can be considered by industries to make the raw materials for their products.

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