At this early stage in inexpensive personal 3D printing, we're still exploring the technology and what it means. While we see intellectual property confusion and carnage in the digital music and now text-based industries, some of us feel that a similar catastrophe will befall personal manufacturing. In the meantime, we continue to explore the space.
But a deep analysis of the intellectual property implications has been recently published by Simon Bradshaw, Adrian Bowyer and Patrick Haufe in their appropriately titled paper, "The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing".
The paper brilliantly introduces the concept of 21st century 3d printing in the context of manufacturing history, putting recent developments in long-term perspective. But then the second half of the paper delves into the knotty problems of intellectual property that will eventually result. One example scenario examined:
If Bridget owns an Acme car she might create 3DPDFs for some of its spare parts, to allow herself to 3D print copies should she need them. One of these is a cap for the windscreen wash reservoir. It is of commonplace design and has to have a diameter and screw pitch to fit the reservoir opening, so it is assumed that no design protection subsists. It does however have Acme’s name moulded into it, a trade mark registered in numerous categories including vehicle parts, and Bridget’s 3DPDF includes this. Bridget makes the 3DPDF available online, and it is downloaded by Dave, who owns a small garage. One of Dave’s customers needs an Acme reservoir cap, so Dave uses his workshop 3D printer to make one from Bridget’s 3DPDF and sells it. He infringes no design right or design document copyright by doing so, but he has sold goods bearing Acme’s trade mark, which he has therefore infringed. If, though, Bridget had removed or omitted the trade mark, Dave could have legitimately labelled the cap as being for an Acme™ car as there is specific provision for a mark to be used to indicate the intended purpose of a product, such as a spare part.
This and other pathological examples are examined in light of UK IP law in gruesome legal detail. Upon reading the paper, one wonders how many other bizarre scenarios will actually occur when the technology becomes widespread.
What is the bottom line? It's not entirely clear, but the paper suggests that generally items produced for personal use may proceed without infringement, but trouble occurs when trademarks or visible designs are shared among others. Time will tell, as these imaginary scenarios will inevitably be played out for real.