3D printing: predictions for the fashion industry

05 May 2014

As 3D printed fashion looks set to become an affordable reality, and it becomes conceivable that consumers will one day scan objects or download design files and print clothing and accessories at home, we look at the likely impact on the fashion industry in terms of challenges to its intellectual property rights and ways in which it looks likely to compete in a brave new fashion world. 

IP predictions

Exemptions from some types of IP infringement for personal use, combined with the practical and PR difficulties of pursuing individual consumers, mean that fashion brands are likely to seek to enforce their rights against those higher up the fashion food chain. The fashion industry may look to adopt the strategies of the already disrupted music and film industries, obtaining blocking injunctions requiring ISPs to prevent access to sites offering infringing design files from which 3D prints can be made. Relying on rights in the digital file would be a way of overcoming the limitations of copyright (such as narrowly defined categories of protectable works) and design right (such as "must-fit" and '"functional" exemptions) which would apply to a 3D printed product itself.

Trade marks also look likely to come into their own in the inevitable battle against counterfeiters. The logo has recently been enjoying a resurgence on the fashion week catwalks after years of so-called “logo fatigue”, hinting at an emerging weariness of mass-produced, mass-accessible fashion which may be exacerbated by 3D printing. If everyone can have a tailor made dress at the click of a button, trade marks could act as a distinguishing factor. This consumer demand would conveniently coincide with brands' interests in making designs more protectable. If a protected logo was to be printed as part of, or for application to, 3D printed products, trade mark owners would have a clear legal recourse.

Further, third parties offering 3D printed equivalents to branded products will need to make the products or files findable online. The UK Courts have recently taken a narrow view of the extent to which third parties can use trade marks, in the context of both keyword advertising and their own website’s search engine, to generate links within search engine results which direct consumers to products not originating from the trade mark owner. While the case did not concern 3D printing, the decision is encouraging for trade mark owners in that context.

Commercial predictions

As well as the threats posed to the fashion industry by the dawn of 3D printable fashion, it is also a land of opportunity.

High-end fashion brands eschewing 3D printing might rely on high quality handcrafting, for which there is always likely to be demand, and brand extensions into products which will, in the early days at least, be less susceptible to 3D printing, such as perfume and cosmetics.

However, tech-forward brands are anticipating, and embracing, the arrival of the 3D days. Offline, they are already responding to existing competition from online retail, with interactive mirrors, touchscreen window displays, virtual fitting rooms, and RFID technology, using in-store technology to provide consumers with what they can’t yet get in the same way online…high standards of service and, crucially, the brand experience. Online, those brands are looking at creating their own applications for 3D printing to stay ahead, possibly by offering a guarantee of quality through the licensing of design files made available to consumers in online libraries similar to iTunes, and by offering increased personalisation through customisation.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing, a process whereby products are built up layer by layer, starting with a 3D digital file of the object either using CAD software or by 3D scanning an existing object. 3D printers can already produce objects in a range of materials and colours which will increase as the technology develops.

3D printing in fashion today

  • Nike’s Vipor Laser Talon includes a 3D printed plate Image of 3D printercontoured to an athlete’s
    foot to increase performance
  • Pringle’s AW14 collection just shown at London Fashion Week featured fabrics created using 3D printers
  • Dita Von Teese and Lady Gaga are two celebrities already seen sporting 3D printed dresses
  • Illegal file sharing website The Pirate Bay already enables the sharing of digital files for 3D printable products, such as jewellery, called “Physibles”
  • Websites like Thingiverse and Shapeways have already established themselves as marketplaces for 3D printed goods, including clothing and accessories

Industry perspective: Sarah Angold of Sarah Angold Studio:

"There's no doubt that 3D printing throws up considerable intellectual property challenges within all design industries, however we are still a little way off a time where consumers will have home 3D printers of high enough quality to replicate the sort of intricate, mixed media work we make at Sarah Angold Studio. Despite the availability of counterfeit products already, our customers want the original, and in fact in some cases we have seen counterfeits raise brand awareness rather than damage sale. Inevitably, as we move into a period of easy digitisation, 'handmade' will carry an even greater value. It is our job as designers to adapt to the changing face of the industry (as we did when the internet arrived) and in my opinion, the opportunities for innovation far outweigh the potential costs."

Sarah's jewellery shown in these photos was made using 3D printing. Images reproduced with kind permission of Sarah Angold.

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