The IP implications of 3D printing

In the April 2010 issue of SCRIPTed, there is a very interesting article by Simon Bradshaw, Adrian Bowyer and Patrick Haufe entitled “The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing“. This will certainly be an important area of the law in the near future. In that article, the authors conclude that:

“Indeed, it is clear that – within the UK at least – personal use of 3D printing technology does not infringe the majority of IP rights. Registered design and patent explicitly exempt personal use, trade mark law has been interpreted as doing so, and UDR is only applicable to commercial use. There is no such exemption for copyright, but the CDPA 1988 has been interpreted so as to provide numerous instances where copyright does not subsist for certain 3D items or is substantially shortened. Furthermore, the experience of music copyright is that purely local and personal infringements (e.g. format shifting from CD to MP3) are in practice impractical to pursue. Many attractive uses of a 3D printer, such as to make spare parts, are in any case likely to be permitted by specific legal exceptions. It thus appears that the legal environment, in the UK at least, is surprisingly favourable towards the use of low-cost 3D printers for personal, and even in many cases commercial, purposes.”

Contrast this with the following story sent in by J. Netherland, a SCRIPTed reader, who has agreed to allow us to reproduce his story in the blog.

“The article by Simon Bradshaw, Adrian Bowyer and Patrick Haufe concerning 3D printing  and with the mention of automobiles and property rights hit me close to home. Years ago I owned and operated a small coachbuiding shop. A man brought an earlier model Ford to me for repair. A truck had backed into his vehicle and crushed the trunk lid beyond any reasonable repair. I called around to auto salvage yards and there were no parts available. One of the salvage yard owners said that he saw the part I needed at a Ford dealer. This dealer was a few blocks from where I was located . I called about the part and since it was older and difficult to obtain, the dealer put a high cost on the item.

Since the outer part was basically a simple compound curve with flanged edges and the inner support structure could easily be repaired, I decided to construct the outer panel myself, the vehicles owner agreed to my fee and I commenced work.

A few days later , I had mounted the support structure and was in the middle of gauging the flanges when an employee from the Ford dealership while passing by my shop noticed what I was working on. He came in and during casual conversation inquired if this was the vehicle that I had been part hunting for. A few hours later, a lawyer handed me a a cease and desist order and a court summons.

To shorten this dialogue, I was ordered by the court to stop work on the vehicle and the Ford dealer stated that he was representing the interests of the Ford Corporation’s Intellectual Property and to stop the construction of counterfeit Ford parts for sale at a commercial enterprise.At court, the judge ruled that since the automobile manufacturers were only required to make/have replacement parts available for seven years after the original date of manufacture of any model vehicle and since that the vehicle and part in question is over ten years old, for all intents and purposes, with the exception of any badge displaying the company’s copyrighted logo, the vehicle and it’s parts have passed into public domain,…therefore any other part can be created in the part’s original image for repair or reconstruction or likewise, can be modified to suit the owner’s personal tastes.

So, depending on how the lawyer presents his/her case and depending on which judge one gets and how any law is interpreted will make many legal cases have to stand on their own merits. This is what is happening with many of the music and movie pirating situations….”

What a fascinating glimpse into the future. What will happen when we can print our own car parts?

If you’re interested in reading more about what the 3D printing future may look like, Cory Doctorow’s Makers is a great read.

14 comments to The IP implications of 3D printing

  • Pete

    "since that the vehicle and part in question is over ten years old, for all intents and purposes, with the exception of any badge displaying the company’s copyrighted logo, the vehicle and it’s parts have passed into public domain"

    I'd love a reference for this, because it has all sorts of interesting implications for abandonware, reproduction of out-of-print works, maintenance of old games consoles, etc.

  • [...] Implications of 3D Printing In Automotive Context A brief but very interesting post in the TechnoLlama blog cites The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing in the context of a case [...]

  • That's not my reading of it. The sentence starts "At court, the judge ruled that…" which in my (non-legal) eyes could very much be a legal definition in this context.

    Pointers to actual case files (if available online) would be very much appreciated!

    Aside: abandonware and out-of-print works could be tricky to justify due to copyright audio/video/art components and their extraordinarily long lifetimes beyond the life of their creator. Old games consoles could be a candidate on the technical/electrical design side of things (reverse engineered schematics and board layouts), but things like firmware/BIOS/OS support might get tricky for similar Copyright code concerns.

    • I think one has to be a little cautious in interpreting case reports by non-lawyers, even if (sometimes especially if) they've been involved in the case as a party. I intend no disrespect to Mr Netherland, but he may not have been in a position to look at the wider legal implications of his case.

      We still don't know which country this happened in, although Andres thinks it's the USA. (Which leads to the question of which state it was in.) But it sounds as if it was a small dispute in front of a local court, which means that any decision wouldn't set a wider precedent – only decisions of senior appellate courts do that.

      Yes, though, I would love to see actual case documents. But you don't often see these in small cases.

  • Hi Andres, and thanks for the cite!

    Did Mr Netherland say which country this happened in? The situation in the UK has long been very favourable towards third-party repairs, because of the distaste of both government and judiciary (particularly in the 1980s, when much of the relevant law was made) for manufacturer monopolies. But other countries have taken a less permissive line, and despite the introduction of the Community Design Right, even in Europe the situation hasn't been harmonised.

  • This is quite an intriguing technology, and in fact I've read in other sources that the printers are used even to make food. The patent enforcement angle, however, does raise valid concerns. Since it would likely be inefficient, or even impossible, to sue consumers using the printers, the printers' manufacturers would seem the more logical targets of infringement suits (on inducement/contributory infringement grounds).

    • In England CBS v Amstrad is authority that so long as a device that can create infringing copies also has a significant non-infringing purpose, it is not an incitement to infringe to sell that device.

      Perhaps more significant though is that the whole point of projects such as RepRap is to make 3D printers that can print copies of themselves, thus removing the manufacturer from the equation.

    • Also, I think we're a long way from printing food in terms of manufacturing actual edibles from raw materials. (When we do get there, we will in effect have the Replicator from Star Trek.) But what people have done is use extrusion-type 3D printers to print with chocolate, or heat-sintering ones to print with sugar – such as the Candyfab.

  • No doubt we will see a rise in these IP disputes, but eventually we will see the consumer as the target of disputes as we'll eventually be able to print things for personal use, taking the profit out of the equation but not covering fair use.

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