3D Printing: Threatening IP Protections

For 3D printing purposes, the U.S.A., the E.U., and other members of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) provide legal protections under patents for both utility (functionality) and design (ornamental design of a functional item). These protections last for a period of years from the time they're issued. Designers can prevent the unlicensed use of their registered intellectual property designs in products for sale; manufacturers must pay a licensing fee.

Current U.S. utility patents model those of the WIPO and the World Trade Organization (WTO) through the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement: A 20-year protective term from the date of filing applies, provided that certain fees are paid properly. Design patents cover only the ornamental aspects of the product, are protected for only 14 years, and may be invalidated if the design has a functional use.

Design patents provide protection against the duplication of a particular object's physical form, but are intended to encourage competition through the development of derivative designs that can then be patented by their creators in turn.

And the grant of a patent requires that the work be original and non-obvious, so examples of previous designs can invalidate a design claim if it can be shown that the design has been in public use or already exists as prior art: a photo or scaled drawing that describes the same design.

Physical designs like the alien cube from the movie Super 8, or other non-functional movie props (like Kirk's prized model of the Oscillation Overthruster prop from the movie Buckaroo Banzai that was later used in a number of “Star Trek” TV episodes) may also be protected under copyright, which protects non-functional designs from being copied for sale to protect their artistic value.

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The difficulty for IP owners is that designs like this can be copied using nothing more than photographs which can be taken from a distance without the owner even being aware of the duplication.

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This presents a challenge for manufacturers, whose next-year body design for a new car could be captured by a photographer, transmitted to a fabrication facility, and made available as a 3D-printed overlay for last year's model before the new version is even in the manufacturer's showrooms for sale. Knock-off vendors take advantage of minimal changes to create commercially transferrable variations that approximate the patented designs.

Because additive manufacturing allows individuals to copy or create new items with a “look and feel” similar to that of patented designs, it's encouraging a reformation of existing patent laws. Until the laws change, however, the technology will continue to cause trouble. The plastic tank model, for instance, is Thomas Valenty's personal design for a model used in playing the Warhammer board game, originally created by Games Workshop.

This is not a direct copy of an existing model, but is designed with a similar “look and feel.” Valenty's posting of his model online resulted in a challenge by Games Workshop, who claimed Valenty's 3D model file violated their intellectual property rights (that is, if someone downloaded Valenty's design, they would not need to buy the official object from Games Workshop).

The ThingiVerse repository received a takedown notice on the basis of protections under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that is better known for suits against illegal file-sharing of music and video files. This takedown notice was intended to eliminate the possibility of someone downloading a copy of the design — not the physical object but its virtual representation — which could then be used to create an object for personal use.

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