The relationship between 3D printing and intellectual property law

1 January 2012 - 1 December 2012

Awarded to: Dr  James Griffin

Research partners: Charlotte Waelde, Liang Hao, Richard Everson

Funding awarded to Exeter £ 4,406

Sponsor(s): EPSRC

About the project

“Like the home computer, personal 3D printing has the potential radically to change aspects of the way in which we live; we can even envisage a society where home manufacturing of many items is the norm. However, as with home computers, such developments may have wider effects. The convergence of the internet, digitized music and media players has had dramatic consequences for music copyright. 3D printing technology may have similar implications for artistic copyright, design right, trade marks and patents, but in a rather more diverse legal framework.”[5]

The advent of 3D printing poses a number of challenges to intellectual property law. An example is the work carried out by  Dr Liang Hao who has been developing 3D chocolate printing technologies and related product co-design tools and on-line sharing systems in an ongoing EPSRC funded digital economy project. The outcome of this research will enable many users, collaboratively, to create 3D design and share them online. The user-generated designs that the printer can create may be downloaded from the Internet. This poses challenges for IP law which is generally based on individual creation not copied from elsewhere and which focuses on the fixed end work rather than the process by which it was made.  With collaborative effort in the design and execution of 3D chocolate where does ownership lie?  What is the borrowing in the development of the design and existing rights?  Does this go beyond mere idea to the taking of expression?  What does is say for the novelty of the eventual product design?  And what of those instances where existing shapes might be protected as trade marks?  Might there be substantial similarity – enough to infringe?  [6]

3D printing is such a new technology that it is as yet unclear as to how the legal framework might be applied and how ‘fit for purpose’ it might be in supporting – or otherwise – the development and use of this technology.

Key questions:

- How IP law relates to 3D printing, and how changes might impact 3D printing’s future

- Whether users and manufacturers with 3D printing capacity infringe copyright, patents and trade marks belonging to third parties;

- Whether 3D printing will increase the likelihood of infringers of patents by those who do not know of the existence of the patent

- Whether websites will be held liable for hosting 3D files or 3D printer software alterations where those infringe third party rights

- The impact of 3D printing technology on those who make replacement parts:  Is this an infringement? 

- The legal response from both copyright and design right law of making 3D models from 2D representations

- Whether the makers of 3D printers can be held liable when 3D printers are used to make infringing copies – or whether the technology will be considered as being capable of being use for substantial non-infringing uses, and the cross-over between copyright and design right. 

- The use of watermarking technologies in 3D printers

- The use of 3D printers in ways that could contrive the criminal law – such as printing fingerprints; coins; masks; keys – all of which could subsequently be used for criminal activity. 

Key questions also relate to the theoretical:

- How should the law regulate 3D printing technology such that it supports the innovative activities whilst respecting third party rights?

- Do we need to re-think the theoretical bases on which IP law is built to consider whether they provide a suitable foundation for innovative technologies? 

- Is the grant of long, strong and powerful monopolies the optimum way of encouraging and protecting innovations such as these?

In order to pursue these questions – which require cross-disciplinary collaboration - we will firstly conduct a literature review which will bring together the work that has so far been undertaken in this field. This will be from the academic legal and engineering and practical perspectives including discovering how many funded research projects are currently underway.  We will then map the IP framework on to 3D technology – from inception to final product including all intermediate stages.  With these results in hand, and having identified the key research challenges, we will develop a full funding proposal which we will submit to the digital economy scheme funded by EPSRC or AHRC. In addition, we will investigate the opportunities to become a partner in the TSB call for Connected Digital Economy Catapult.

We will use the BTG funding to employ two research students, one from law and one from engineering. Their task will be to carry out the literature review as described above and to map the law on to the technological process.  In close consultation with the supervisors the key research challenges, the subject of the funding application, will be uncovered. The researchers will also assist in drafting the funding application. With the support of the researchers, we will a. IP and 3D Printing workshop. This workshop will invite 3D printing companies, practical IP lawyers, academics and relevant shareholders to share and exchange ideals and practices in this research area. We will present our research report to the attendance to collect valuable feedback. This workshop will also enable us to identify suitable academic and industrial collaborators for our research proposal. 

Expected outcomes and benefits:

We will produce a research report that will include a comprehensive literature review from both legal and engineering perspectives and which will highlight the research challenges in this area.  This will be disseminated at the IP and 3D Printing workshop, at which we will invite relevant stakeholders (i.e. companies, lawers, academics) who may be interested in being involved with our future bids.

We will have prepared core research content (i.e. research challenges, objectives and programme) for a research proposal which will be submitted for funding application as detailed above. 


[5] S Bradshaw, A Bowyer and P Haufe, "The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing", (2010) 7:1 SCRIPTed 5


Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council