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UKIPO report on 3D printing lacks dimension

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3D printExcitement around 3D printing waned somewhat in 2014 from its meteoric rise in late 2013. Nonetheless, lawmakers and policymakers have been keeping an eye on this disruptive technology, leading to a UK Intellectual Property Office-commissioned report entitled A Legal and Empirical Study into the Intellectual Property Implications of 3D Printing, for which the executive summary was recently published.

The report is actually a wrapper for two separate studies. These were jointly carried out by the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management (CIPPM) at Bournemouth University and Econolyst Ltd, a consultancy specialising in 3D printing.

The first study comprised an analysis of how copyright law may be may be affected by the emergence of 3D scanning, and the creation and modification of digital design files. Additionally, it reviewed file-sharing websites including MakerBot’s Thingiverse, Autodesk’s 123D and GrabCad which are dedicated to computer-aided design (CAD) to provide a view on the types of print products available, their price, popularity and usage licences.

The second study undertook interviews with “key stakeholders” to form six industry-focussed case studies discussing the potential impact of 3D printing and additive manufacturing. Two case studies were evaluated in each of the areas of (i) replacement parts, (ii) personalised products and (iii) collectibles e.g. figurines. In particular, the latter case studies explored ways that artists and designers protect their digital content from potential intellectual property rights infringement that could occur with the ever-reducing cost of domestic 3D printing.

Wait-and-see conclusions

The first study found no indication that 3D printing-related online activity is “a mass phenomenon yet”, leading to the conclusion that “there is no urgency to legislate on 3D printing at present”. The authors also conclude that “there is little to indicate infringement at a noticeable level in the current landscape” despite not mentioning any methodology for how this was assessed in this executive summary.

The findings of the second study included that “there will be little commercial impact on either the automotive or domestic appliance aftermarket within the next decade as a function of either consumer 3D printing or industrial [additive manufacturing]”. This is because the limitations of current domestic 3D printers (in terms of build size, accuracy and materials which “will remain limited for the foreseeable future”) mean that they aren’t suitable for printing spare parts for cars and white goods. Further, the cost of commercially printed spare parts mean that they do not present a compelling alternative over those that are manufactured traditionally, although the authors expect that such printing will reduce in price.

Regarding 3D scanning and replication, the authors consider that existing “consumer-level 3D scanning is currently limited and will remain so for the foreseeable future with little risk to businesses and IP laws”.

Bland recommendations

In brief, the executive summary recommends that:

  • the Government holds off on legislative action in 3D printing, but sets up a UKIPO Working Group to monitor arising intellectual property issues, like how to trace 3D printed spare parts and whether a CAD file is capable of copyright protection. This recommendation is made despite the fact that CAD has been around for decades, predating the emergence of 3D printing.
  • file-sharing websites should encourage more users to licence their work by providing them with more awareness and understanding of the different types of licences available to them.
  • industry should adopt standards for sending print files direct to printer (rather than sending CAD files to users), and open up licensing of CAD files (the opposite recommendation to users of file-sharing sites?). The recommendation to resolve concerns over traceability of spare parts is reiterated here.

Whilst IPcopy eagerly awaits the full report, the research carried out was, on the face of it, very limited in scope. For example, there were only six case studies in the second study used to reach the conclusion that domestic 3D printers “will remain limited for the foreseeable future”. There seems to have been no discussion of specific types of 3D printing (for example, fused deposition modelling, stereolithography or selective laser sintering) and how they might evolve in the domestic market.

Notably for an IP study, there also appears to have been no specific considerations made to how registered and unregistered designs, trade marks and patents may be affected by 3D printing.

Laurence Lai 3 February 2015

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