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3D Printing: the Next Major IP Battleground?

16/04/2015 18:06 BST | Updated 16/06/2015 10:59 BST

The 3D printer - a device capable of taking a 3D blueprint and reproducing it as a real-life 3D object - is an innovation that's taking the tech world by storm. Though technically they've been in use, to some degree, in certain professional sectors since the 1980s, the 3D printer is a product that is slowly making its way into the mainstream.

Of course they're expensive - currently you'll struggle to get a good quality product for under £1,000 - but they're certainly accessible to anyone with the capital to hand. While the applications are seemingly endless, allowing boundless creative scope to artists, engineers and inventors alike, the whole notion of freely available 3D printing raises some serious intellectual property concerns.

3D printers allow the owner to print a copy of any object they see fit. If they print an object that is entirely of their own creation there's no issue. However, there are - of course - objects that are subject to copyright and design right, and this is where issues arise.

As with any new technology (particularly in such a rapidly evolving tech landscape), it is unclear in what way intellectual property law will evolve to deal with 3D printing. If a parent with a 3D printer prints off a copyrighted plastic toy for their child using a blueprint found online, who is liable? The parent? The printer's manufacturer? The person who created and/or uploaded the blueprint? If we look at the example of music and film piracy, it's fair to assume that - once the law has caught up - any or all of these people could face legal action in the above scenario. However, to date, very few cases involving 3D printing have come before the Courts and so the body of case law in this area is in its infancy.

The reasons for this lack of legal action are twofold - firstly, the number of 3D printers owned by private owners is relatively low, and secondly, the technology only allows simple designs to be printed. Printing complex mechanisms - such as those found in a watch or computer - are not yet possible, or at least not in the world beyond the laboratory.

More alarmingly, in 2013 Greater Manchester police discovered what appeared to be 3D printer generated gun components following the execution of a search warrant. This was the first seizure of its kind in the UK.

The fact that it's possible to create a mechanism as complex as a firearm does, of course, make it probable that less criminally minded consumers could replicate complex items. The only catch is that they'd have to print out every piece individually. If they were to build - as mentioned above - a watch or a computer, or even a gun, it'd be an incredibly laborious and lengthy task. Essentially, you'd have to be a fairly dedicated hobbyist to even attempt it. Even if projects such as these do contravene intellectual property laws, their impact is surely so minimal that legally pursuing those responsible would be disproportionately expensive; not to mention the fact that - like music piracy - finding those responsible is no easy task.

The ways in which the law will develop to fit around this emerging technology are quite difficult to predict. After all, it's fair to say that the 3D printer is far from ubiquitous. And it wouldn't be the first tech item to be hyped as the next big thing only to go the way of the CD Walkman. Just look at Google Glass, which was touted as the next must-have device before being pulled from the market in January 2015. This low uptake on 3D printers is presumably why intellectual property holders have been slow to enforce their rights.

It'll be interesting to see where we're at with this issue in a year's time; after all, commentators have been predicting for a few years now that 2015 will be the year that 3D printing finally takes off. If it does, we could see the issue emerging as a key battleground for intellectual property holders. If not, the technology will remain squarely in the hands of tech-minded hobbyists and remain a fringe issue. While the former would certainly make the lives of those dealing in intellectual property law more difficult, it would very quickly become a priority issue affecting the bottom line of many businesses. After all, why pay hundreds of pounds for an Apple Watch when you can just download a file from the internet and print one, legally? This potential development could change IP law forever, now we just have to wait and see if it happens.

Wayne Beynon is an IP lawyer at Cardiff and London based law firm Capital Law www.capitallaw.co.uk