The birth of 3D printing has ushered in an age of instant manufacturing, propelling an unprecedented surge in innovation and creativity. Originally an expensive tool of industry (namely aerospace, medicine and automotive), the once-costly device is now within the financial reach of consumers.

One of the original patents expired in 2009, inspiring hardware manufacturers to race to market with their own versions of a home 3D printer. However, in order to create a 3D object, users require either the skill to create their own design file or the capacity to download a previously created blueprint, the latter of which raises concerns over copyright and intellectual property (IP) laws.

Shades of IP

As is the case in many countries, the UK’s IP laws were created long before 3D printing, which has led to the emergence of a grey area. The risk of confusion led to the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) commissioning Bournemouth University and an industry partner to conduct research into the IP implications of 3D printing. Their aim was to form an overview of how this emerging technology could shape IP laws in the future.

Acting as principal investigator was BU’s Professor Dinusha Mendis, Co-Director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management (CIPPM), who was assisted by co-investigators Davide Secchi (formerly of BU), and Phil Reeves (of Econolyst (Stratasys Strategic Consulting), said to be the leading 3D printing and additive manufacturing company in the UK).

“On the one hand, it’s about protecting the creators’ rights, and on the other hand it’s about not stifling creativity and fostering innovation,” Professor Mendis says: “In fact when I led that project, the question was should we regulate?”

The study

The two-part study, published in 2015, took a quantitative and qualitative approach to address the previously limited research in this area, providing an overarching empirical and legal analysis into the current position of 3D printing. As a result of their research, the team advised a ‘wait and see approach’. “It is in its infancy, at least from a consumer perspective,” Professor Mendis explains. “At the moment, we are waiting for that Bill Gates or Steve Jobs moment to make the technology more accessible. Already it’s accessible but at the moment it's still a few steps away from being mainstream. So it's about striking the right balance.”

View Professor Mendis' staff profile

Professor Dinusha Mendis

Professor of Intellectual Property & Innovation Law

Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management

With every new technology there are so many good things, and so many advantages, and I think 3D printing is no different. But we have to think about how to inform policy and how best we can regulate that technology.

Room for improvement

Despite assuring the UKIPO there was time to shape policy, Professor Mendis did make a list of more pressing recommendations. First, it was cited that the lack of clarity arising from the copyright status of CAD files in the UK and USA, could lead to uncertainty and cause issues in the future, recommending that UKIPO establish a Working Group to further debate the topic.

Online platforms (intermediaries) were encouraged to clarify licencing terminology for the benefit of their users as it was discovered that 65% of users didn’t license their work, leaving their creations vulnerable and open to infringement whilst losing the ability to later claim authorship.

The report also urged online tools – particularly in regards to scanning and editing existing designs – to be reviewed, as breaches in IP would surely begin to surface once the technology became more widely available. The report’s insight for the industry was to create clearer rules and guidance for the access and use of design files, and encouraged them to ‘open the doors to a range of IP rights holders and a vast range of outlets’, highlighting the benefit of adopting a pay-per-print business model thus removing the need for a CAD file to be sent to the consumer.

The average starting price when 3D printers were first invented
The current starting price for a 3D printer on Amazon (as of 3 Oct 2018)
The number of CAD content creators who fail to license their work on online platforms

Going global

Following the report’s publication, Professor Mendis’ research reached international audiences, as she was invited to give talks worldwide, most notably perhaps to the Australian Government.

Leading on from the 2015 report for the UKIPO, in 2018, Professor Mendis was commissioned to conduct research into the 'IP Implications of the Development of Industrial 3D Printing', by the European Commission, in collaboration with partners from the UK, Germany, Austria and Finland, which is still in progress and is due for completion in 2019. Furthermore, a co-edited book, titled 3D Printing and Beyond: Intellectual Property and Regulation, which Professor Mendis co-edited with Professor Mark Lemley of Stanford University California, USA and Professor Matthew Rimmer of Queensland University of Technology, Australia was published by Edward Elgar Publishers in February 2019 and covers the subject from a wider perspective.

“The UK, US and Australia – as market leaders in the field – have recognised the need to identify the challenges, the gaps and the weaknesses in the laws and then consider how those gaps can be addressed and inform policy,” Professor Mendis explains. “With every new technology there are so many good things and so many advantages, whilst they also throw up challenges, and I think 3D printing is no different. But we have to think about how to inform policy and how best we can regulate that technology. So I think the future is bright, but we need to regulate 3D printing in a way that is beneficial for all stakeholders; for consumers, industry and all those involved in using the technology.”

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