Intellectual property law is based, in part, on tracing accountability. When a new product infringes upon an existing, protected IP, you can draw a line from the infringing item to a perpetrator.

These connections can be much more difficult to trace when 3-D printers are involved. The advancement of 3-D printing technology has outpaced IP law. The reality is, there are still unanswered questions, which For IP holders can be concerning.

Why 3-D printing poses such a problem

There are three key elements of 3-D printing that make IP enforcement so unwieldy. These are:

  1. The wide availability and relatively cheap price of 3-D printers
  2. The ease with which one can copy a protected design (whether by scanning it themselves or using an existing CAD file)
  3. The ability to quickly share and spread CAD files that contain protected IP

These factors create a situation where it is quite easy for someone to produce something based on a protected product, either as a direct copy or with modifications. A tool with a design patent, for example, could be scanned, turned into a file, and reproduced by a 3-D printer, with little oversight or added cost. One could also try to mimic an established brand’s product and sell counterfeit items for a profit.

Protecting products and designs

The law has not caught up with the nuances of 3-D printing. Currently, many uncertainties center around one question: At what point does 3-D printing a protected product become infringement? Is it:

  • When a CAD file is created without permission?
  • When that CAD file is uploaded to the web and shared?
  • The first time the protected item is printed by an individual for another person’s use?
  • Only when the item or CAD file is used for a commercial purpose?

Hobbyists who print a protected item solely for private use are unlikely to face legal ramifications, but anything beyond that can fall into murkier legal territory. The difficulty in tracking down who is ultimately responsible for the infringement may add an additional complicating layer.

Still, there are steps IP owners can take to help their cause. Filing for the appropriate trademark, utility or design patent, and copyright provides some basic safeguards. Any party that explicitly infringes upon these protections, particularly for a commercial purpose, can be held liable.

For those who do choose to take these IP battles to court, know you may be helping to forge a new path forward.