3D printing and the law: three recent studies and some recommendations

3D Cherries ...
If you think that Bournemouth is just a rather old-fashioned traditional British seaside town, it's time to think again.  Not only has the local football team ("the Cherries") secured promotion to English football's Premier League next season, which means that it will have the thrill of playing the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at least twice before being relegated, but its local university has also hosted some useful thinking on the subject of 3D printing -- a topic that will be on everyone's minds long after the football team's exploits have faded into the past.  The following information, supplied by Dinusha Mendis (referenced below), explains:
3D Printing: some research results from the UK

Centre for Intellectual Property Policy and Management (CIPPM) researchers Dinusha Mendis and Davide Secchi, together with Phil Reeves (Stratasys, formerly Econolyst), recently published three reports on the intellectual property implications of 3D printing resulting from a project commissioned by the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO). Dinusha (CIPPM Co-Director) led the project for the UKIPO and  all three Reports can be accessed here. 


In 2012 the Big Innovation Centre Report, Three Dimensional Policy: Why Britain needs a policy framework for 3D Printing, provided a number of recommendations, one of which was to review the IP implications of 3D printing. In 2013, the UKIPO highlighted the lack of empirical evidence relating to 3D printing and the difficulty in determining whether this emerging technology will have an impact on IP laws.  The aim of the current project was therefore to respond to this limited research.  In doing so, the Studies adopted a legal, quantitative and qualitative approach.

The Studies

Some platforms are more
popular than others ...
Study I, A Legal and Empirical Study of Online Platforms and an Analysis of User Behaviour (here), explores 17 online platforms dedicated to 3D printing. It provides a legal and empirical overview of how online platforms operate, aiming to give a clearer understanding of ‘how’ the sharing of 3D design files on online sharing platforms happens, together with the parameters for sharing, e.g. terms and conditions, applicable rules and regulations, together with restrictions and bounds that apply to user behaviour and file-sharing.  It evaluates the extent of this phenomenon among users, including factor such as price, downloads, licences, type of physical objects which are shared, as well as the implications for IP law – especially for sharing and the copyright implications relating to software.  As such, Study I presents new findings on the current status of 3D printing relating to online platforms.

The potential for printing
3D spare parts is immense
Study II, The Current Status and Impact of 3D Printing Within the Industrial Sector: An Analysis of Six Case Studies (here), explores the status, impact and adoption of 3D printing in the Replacement Parts, Customised Goods and High Value Small Status Goods Industries. To map the impact of 3D printing technology on the UK’s economic and legal landscape, Study II presents six case studies which consider the current and future consequence of 3D printing.  The first two address issues relating to Replacement Parts and consider how 3D printing will affect the supply of aftermarket parts to the consumer.  Two case studies on Customised Goods address how 3D printing enables unique products to be tailored to consumers’ needs, and the IP challenges that arise from this. The final two case studies, on High Value Small Status Goods, looks at the impact of 3D printing on consumer products that have a low functional purpose, such as collectible figurines or sculptures.

The third publication, an Executive Summary (here), brings together the findings and conclusions from the two Studies and provides recommendations.

The Studies conclude that there is no urgency to legislate at present as 3D printing is not yet a mass phenomenon, warning that a premature call for legislative and judicial action could stifle the public interest in “fostering creativity and innovation and the right of manufacturers and content creators to protect their livelihoods”.

However, as 3D printing continues to grow, it is important to address the IP issues arising in this area in order to cultivate a climate better suited to tackling impending IP issues more successfully, and in a manner which takes into account the interests of all stakeholders. As such, the Studies make some important recommendations to Government, the Industry and Intermediaries (online platforms) about how to regulate 3D printing without resorting to legislation.

Recommendations and conclusions

Recommendations to Government include the setting up of a Working Group to review the technology and its IP status, particularly in relation to the software (Computer-Aided Design (CAD) Files) and the traceability of spare parts. The Reports also suggest that the Government should adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.

The cartridge ran out half
through the print job ...
The Studies conclude that 65% of users engaged in the activities of 3D printing on online platforms do not take licences with regard to their work, leaving their creations vulnerable and open to infringement while losing the ability to claim authorship. The Study therefore recommends that online platforms provide more awareness and understanding of the different types of licences. The Study suggests that this aim can be achieved by explaining the nuances relating to each licence in clear and simple language, rather than simply ‘encouraging’ the user to adopt a particular type of licence. Further, online platforms can assign the most appropriate licence as a default with ‘opt-out’ as an option.

Finally, in relation to Industry, the Study recommends the adoption of new business models and provides a number of suggestions in this regard. The Reports also suggest the licensing of CAD files more widely, thereby opening up doors to a range of outlets selling 3D CAD files. This will avoid locking the manufacturer into an agreement through a system such as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for (spare) parts. Although a one-stop-shop may take away the costs of manufacture, transportation and storage while reducing potential infringement of IP laws, it can lead to a monopoly-situation, which should be avoided.
3D printing and the law: three recent studies and some recommendations 3D printing and the law: three recent studies and some recommendations Reviewed by Jeremy on Tuesday, May 26, 2015 Rating: 5


  1. The first study surprisingly ignores that UK recently adopted a personal copying exception. At page 13 authors write: "it is clear that where a work is ‘copied’ without authorisation it will constitute an infringement of copyright"!
    There is no reason why one should treat differently physical copies of physical works.

  2. If anyone is interested, I have written my LL.M dissertation on the topic (I am currently working on it for potential publication) - http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2495416

  3. Thank you for the link Pedro, an interesting dissertation. If looking for publication you may wish to expand on the copy shop and 3d printer mfxr liability portion, to consider what business models might be implemented that could aggravate or alleviate their potential liability.


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