3D printing could be the new industrial revolution. However, as a truly disruptive business model, it could also completely change the shape of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) and how they are used, as well as undermine their value. 

This is because it offers an easy and increasingly affordable way to digitally manufacture and essentially produce an exact copy of a product. The Gardener Consultancy Group predicted in 2014 that by 2018, companies would lose $100 billion worth of IP due to 3D printing. That is a scary statistic.

Facilitating infringement of IPRs

Whilst there are huge advantages to businesses that can use it to prototype, as well as manufacture, new products, including spare parts, it will also make it very easy to infringe IP rights across the board. It has vast potential applications from spare parts, medical devices, tailored pharmaceutical drugs to more simple industrial and mechanical devices - it is all possible. Many of these products are patented, trademarked and/or protected by design right/copyright.

Home printing by consumers will also become more common place and this will be difficult if not impossible to stop. This activity will not always in any event be actionable, as depending on the type of IP involved, the "personal use" defence may apply. Even if it is actionable, as the music industry has experienced with illegal peer to peer file sharing, this type of consumer "infringement" is not easily dealt with. It can also result in adverse unwanted publicity. Thus the possibility of online sharing of unauthorised CAD files (used in the 3D printing process) may increase and exacerbate the scale of problem.

Virtual transport of counterfeits

Large scale illegal counterfeiting will also be assisted by 3D printing technology as it becomes more widely available. A product no longer needs to be manufactured in a particular jurisdiction where IP might not perhaps be an issue and can simply be exported digitally from there in the form of the CAD file direct to consumers en masse into a jurisdiction in which there is infringement. This avoids physical imports through customs and takes away the added protection that IP owners can obtain by using such procedures to seize infringing goods at the border.

Protecting your rights in the age of 3D printing

The existing laws and remedies on IP protection such as the potential availability of blocking orders against ISPs hosting websites offering the means to infringe may not be the complete answer. In addition it could render patents specifically for novel processes for products much less valuable as use of 3D printing will avoid infringement. That said it will still be of benefit for original manufacturers and IP owners to gear up and obtain as much registered IP protection around their products as possible. Registered designs seem an obvious candidate for protection of features of 3D product designs. The rights owners may also wish to get ahead of the game and learn lessons from the music industry.

Perhaps one way of helping to prevent or mitigate the problem is to address it head on and for businesses to secure their own IP rights to their 3D files and even their own unique specific 3D printing processes to optimise the process for users. As a complementary offering to traditional retail sale online or offline, customers could be offered the chance to buy legitimate 3D files to use to produce products at home. A licence model may work but would need to be carefully thought through to eliminate the possibilities of unauthorised multiple use. Making this process easy and cheap for the consumer could be another way forward.

Ultimately though the alternative to engaging with and embracing the new technology may mean devaluing IP rights as well as potential huge loss of sales revenue, as a result of growth in illegal counterfeits.