Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Musings on #3DPrinting

Art? Furniture? Protected?
There is no doubt that 3D printing will become ubiquitous as the technology improves and associated costs come down. It has the potential to change the world in many ways; from medical supplies and delivery, technology and repairs, fashion and wearables, to the protection of the environmental through resource efficient manufacturing. However if we were to use children as a gauge for future trends, then the present incorporation of 3D printing into the toy industry will ensure that even the youngest will be aware of 3D printing’s creative possibilities.

Parliament has been consistently caught on the hop as new technologies have emerged. This has led to badly drafted legislation, kneejerk amendments to current law, and a twisting of inadequate law to fit new circumstances. New technologies bring a mixture of positives and negatives, but one thing is certain; new technology deserves a coherent, thoughtful legislature.

There has been some discussion. In 2013 the IPO reported on potential policy in 3D printing and set out to identify prospective new avenues for research. This was followed up by a recent IPO report called ‘A Legal and Empirical Study into the Intellectual Property Implications of 3D Printing’ (Jan 2015) and it concluded that ‘there is nothing to indicate that the activity on 3D printing online platforms is a mass phenomenon yet. As such, there is no urgency to legislate on 3D’.

As these reports suggest, it is a challenge to legislate where new technologies are concerned. However they acknowledge that as 3D printing continues to grow, it is important to address the intellectual property issues arising in this area. Intellectual property, as well as product safety and liability, are the two main areas of legal interest. Just as counterfeit car parts may prove a danger to consumers, an unauthorised 3D printed part could pose the same problems regarding fitness and safety.

The intellectual property rights of 3D printed objects and the associated computer code are the same as traditional products. The action of scanning and printing an object without permission or license is subject to the same rules that cover other types of copying. However there is an added complication as to whether the object/code are the target for counterfeiters, or whether the counterfeiters are using 3D printing to pass something off as an original.

One example of this is the humble mobile phone cover. These are relatively low cost accessories which provide a good source of revenue for mobile phone companies. If they can be printed out on demand, with a brand name, or an attractive well known design, then companies and brands are going to lose out on sales. Obviously there is a personal use exception but my immediate thought is this. What is to stop an enterprising child from creating computer code and setting up a small scale enterprise selling Hello Kitty phone covers to classmates? There is a clearly a broad scope for legal difficulties, and rights holders perhaps haven't thought about wider implications.

What I find interesting is the status of 3D printed art and how that slots into the intellectual property world. After discussions of whether computer art is art or not, I'm more baffled than ever as to how the court would treat wholesale infringement of an artist using the medium of 3D printing. I would hope it would be covered under general copyright. However there are some people currently writing about this so I can't wait to read it.

If they feel that the current legislation is adequate, under which part of intellectual property does 3D printing come? The lack of case law examples makes it hard to know how courts would apply the law in practice. One commentator said, ‘courts have been limiting the use of copyright to protect rights in functional objects and software. So should design rights, which were developed to protect designs of physical objects, be extended to digital files? And who is the infringer: the person who distributes the digital file without permission, the 3D printing shop or the end user?’

What I find most challenging to imagine is the mix of product and online, a meeting of tangible and intangible, virtual and real. In order to create an object, the computer code is vital. But without the manufacturing and technological knowhow, the code is meaningless. Many people are involved in production and supply, for instance, the original designer of the object; the computer coder; the 3D manufacturer or supplier; the outlet, which may or may not be online. This could be further complicated if the code is added to a site such as thingyverse or similar. Therefore the more people involved in the creation of something, the potential for ownership / infringement disputes increases.

The model which is being suggested in response to potential legal headaches is the now almost entirely digital music industry. Ever since the court found that dual tape decks could be sold, and it was the choice of the purchaser whether they used it to copy music, the industry has been fighting the tide of technology. Although there were fears that online availability would kill music completely, it seems that a corner has been turned. Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon etc have employed innovative ways of making paid for music more available than ever before.

Therefore if one industry has managed to strike a balance under the current legislation, there is no reason why companies cannot change their business models successfully. The opportunities that new technology provides should be embraced and turned to advantage.


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