3D (three-dimensional) printing technology began in the 1980s, however, the increase and advancement of technology has allowed consumers the ability to access low cost 3D high-performance printers. With great technology comes great challenges to existing laws that never could have anticipated the future impact of these rapidly changing industries. With the market for 3D printers growing by 20% every year, any person can now own a 3D printer, which has vast implications on trademark, copyright, and patent law.
Recently, while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, a hospital in Italy experienced a shortage of special valves used in breathing machines needed by COVID-19 patients. Local engineers recreated the valve design digitally and printed it with a 3D printer, without the permission of the patent holder. The incident, which involved a U.S. company, not only highlights potential ethical concerns in enforcing such intellectual property (IP) rights during a medical emergency, but also the relative ease with which infringement of IP rights can occur through the use of 3D printers.
A trademark is an identifying mark like a name, logo, or slogan, that allows consumers to connect a good or service to its source. In the United States, trademark rights are conferred by first use, not first to file a registration; however, registering a trademark federally provides significantly more legal protection and options to the rights holder.
Trademark infringement occurs when the mark is used without permission in connection with a sale and is likely to lead to confusion, deception, or mistake as to the source of the goods or service. Trademark infringement using 3D printers can lead to consumer confusion when infringing material is placed in the stream of commerce and, in turn, damage the reputation and business of the rights holder. It will not likely matter if the trademark appears differently and not identically when printed in 3D because the standard of determining if the unauthorized mark will lead to confusion is whether a consumer is likely to be confused as to the source of the mark.
Copyright is a legal right held by the creator of an original work. This right arises immediately after an original, tangible work is created. There is no requirement to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office; however, doing so provides added legal protection and tools to enforce the copyright.
Copyright infringement refers to the unauthorized reproduction, duplication, distribution, or creation of a derivative work of an original work. With advanced 3D printing technology, any person may scan a copyrighted work and reproduce that original work. If any object is scanned without the original owner’s permission, and printed on a 3D printer, it may constitute copyright infringement.
In an innovative response to the growing trend of 3D printing, Hasbro announced a partnership with the 3D printing marketplace, Shapeways in 2014, to allow My Little Pony fans to freely create fan art with 3D printers. This unique strategy allowed Hasbro to keep control over their copyright and find a compromise for fans.
A patent provides legal rights to the owner of an invention or mechanism that prevents any other person from manufacturing, using, selling or importing the product, substance, or process under patent protection. There are three different types of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.
As with trademark law and copyright law, if a person takes a product or process, and reproduces it with a 3D printer, that may constitute patent infringement. Patent infringement occurs when a party makes, uses, sells, or offers the invention without the permission of the patent holder. Patent holders should monitor the marketplace vigilantly for infringement of their 3D printed products.
Contact an Experienced Intellectual Property Attorney
If you are concerned about how the growing trend of 3D printing may affect your intellectual property rights, contact an experienced intellectual property attorney at The Myers Law Group at 888-676-7211 or online today.