3D printing – a game changer?

16 May 2016

Bettina Kövecses

Following in the footsteps of many Bird & Bird offices, on 1 March 2016 our Budapest team hosted a seminar on 3D printing to give clients the opportunity to learn more about this rapidly evolving and potentially disruptive technology.

The event included live demonstrations which aimed to highlight the capabilities of the new technology and the wide spectrum of possibilities it will offer to many industries. The seminar attracted attendees from national and international companies, including senior staff from the Hungarian Intellectual Property Office, the Collective Right Management Association for Authors' Copyrights (Artisjus) and the National Board Against Counterfeiting.

During the seminar Bird & Bird lawyers and industry professionals discussed why 3D printing could be a game-changer and what role the law can, and will, play as 3D printing becomes more common place, in particular with respect to design rights. We even drew special attention to the existence of unregistered community design rights and raised awareness regards disclosure and enforcement. The presentations also considered key commercial, IT and product regulatory issues, as well as providing ideas for a strategic approach to maximising the protection and exploitation of the various IP rights that might arise from using the technology, such as design rights. Topics that raised particular interest centred around how to identify, tackle or profitably work around certain types of infringement issues such as illegal use of CAD files, the actual (re)creation of protected items, and whether applying any trace-backs is possible or worthy at all. In respect of the necessary and extensive IT support needed for this technology, attendees were curious to know whether IT service providers and 3D printer operators will be liable for contributory infringement and/or product liability; or whether there is any initiative to introduce a levy system or similar on 3D printers. More practical and less theoretical discussions concerned the protection and use of 3D scanned data, especially personal and certain health data, and also the effect of the new technology on existing licence and even supply/manufacturing agreements.

Experts from KVINT-R, a local company and authorised reseller of 3D Systems (a US company considered the market leader in certain 3D printing technologies) provided an overview of 3D printing technologies including current and future opportunities. 3D printers and a selection of 3D printed works were displayed for attendees to see.

Comment
3D printing is a revolutionary manufacturing method and therefore has to be treated with great care and attention. The devil lies in the detail. Rights holders, manufacturers and market participants should be aware that new 3D printing technologies will cause a shift away from normal patterns of manufacture towards a complicated network of fabrication, where the end user/customer can actively participate in the manufacturing process. This change also means a shift in the burden of legal responsibilities, for example product and contractual liabilities.

From an IP perspective, the number and type of potential infringers are likely to increase and therefore it is necessary to consider a new comprehensive approach to maximising IP protection. Depending on the industry sector, a matrix of protection schemes can be implemented by drawing on existing IP protection mechanisms. Review of supply and licence agreements is a must in order to reflect changes that 3D printing may introduce, and to secure proper enforcement of IP rights. Rights having a shorter period of protection (such as design rights) may be re-valued as these can be obtained more easily and may be "upgraded" according to the pace of this rapidly evolving technology.

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