Private 3D printing raises need for action in IP law

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According to a new Bitkom survey Germans expect a future increase in the use of 3D printers by the private sector. The new technology poses major challenges for manufacturers and developers in regards to protecting intellectual property and could therefore require reforms of IP law.

The increasing availability of low-cost and high-performance printers is quickly driving 3D technology within the reach of private users. In a representative survey conducted by the Bitkom digital association, almost 9 out of 10 respondents (87%) said they had already heard of 3D printing. Nearly every fifth respondent (18%) has already used a 3D printer or a 3D printing service, and more than half (55%) can imagine using the technology in the future.

“3D printing is already of great relevance in the industry,” explains Bitkom Vice President Achim Berg. “Now the topic is becoming increasingly important in private households, too. In the medium term, 3D printing with its broad possible applications may well become a product for the masses.”

Despite the promises, the technology is also a source of concern. Approximately 8 out of 10 German citizens (79%) for example fear that in the future counterfeits of patented or design-protected products will simply be manufactured at home. “3D printing processes raise questions about intellectual property rights and their enforceability,” comments Berg. So far, however, it would appear that the existing rules are sufficient.

For the future, IP experts see a need to take action in the field of 3D printing though, as lawyers Elsa Malaty and Guilda Rostama recently summarised in an article for the WIPO. Copyrights protect the originality of a work as well as the right of the manufacturer to reproduce it; industrial design rights protect the appearance of an object and patent law its technical functions – but all of these laws have their limitations. In many countries they regulate the commercial use of registered trademarks, the copying of proprietary products for private, non-commercial purposes, however, is often exempted; for example based on the provisions of Article 6, of TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property) and the corresponding EU Directive (2008/95/CE, Article 5). Even if a product is protected by a trademark or a patent, if it is copied for purely private use with a 3D printer, this is often not considered a violation of protective rights.

Also being discussed are the consequences related to the possibility of a quick and easy online exchange of 3D printing templates. Central legal issues are still wide open, for example: Is the digitalisation of a protected product already an IP infringement or only the upload of the print template to a file-sharing platform? How could the original manufacturers use copy protection technologies or counteract online exchange platforms for 3D print files by offering legal templates?

Interested parties can get further information on the topic of 3D printing on the 28th of September at the Bitkom 3D Printing Summit, which will be held in Berlin. The theme is “The Applications of 3D Printing”.

Sources: Bitkom, WIPO

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