New dimensions - An overview of Bird & Bird's 3D printing event

30 September 2014

Bird & Bird 3D Printing

Digital printing has been called the “third industrial revolution”. Bird & Bird’s The Printable World event looked at the intellectual property, commercial/IT and product liability aspects of this rapidly evolving technology.

“People can now produce almost anything, and at low cost,” Founder of Prod Designs, Joe Berg, told delegates at The Printable World. The cost of producing prototypes has been slashed by 3D printing technology, along with production and development times. “However, the legal aspect is that it’s never been so easy to copy a design and produce a replica.”

The increasing availability and affordability of the technology means a possible shift in patterns of manufacture, Ewan Grist, Bird & Bird, told delegates, and it was vital that people were aware of the IP implications. The IP implications span not only design rights, but also potentially copyright, trade marks and patents as well, he said. The vast majority of functional 3D designs may “lack sufficient artistic merit” to be protected by copyright in the UK, and instead would be protected by design right law, although “inevitable attention” would be focused on file-sharing sites that allow users to download unauthorised 3D design files. Trade marks could be infringed by 3D printing an item with one embedded, and patents – which protect technical innovations for 20 years – could also potentially be infringed.

“Just because something’s technically possible doesn’t mean it’s commercially viable,” said Barry Jennings, Bird & Bird. However, the potential of 3D printing to change manufacturing models and distribution networks –to “cut out all of those middle men” – could mean dramatic reductions in costs. “It has the ability to stem the tide of off-shoring, but you won’t have to ship goods, so obviously there are a number of industries that are going to be hugely threatened.” For retailers, however, it could mean the ability to hold more stock and pay far less rent for storage. “It’s basic economics. So it has the potential to be hugely disruptive in some areas and hugely beneficial in others.

“Prices are coming down, but I don’t really see everyone having one of these in their own homes,” he continued. Instead, the most likely scenario would be based around 3D printing shops, “so as a consumer you also get the benefit of wraparound services."

In terms of the licensing of 3D printing files, lessons could be learned from those industries already disrupted by changes in licensing models, such as software and music. “The music industry was incredibly threatened by downloading but actually iTunes was a huge boon and provided a way to make money. A lot of it will be about what else you can build into your service to protect yourself and keep your customers coming back. It will be about the ancillary experience – encouraging people to be part of your community.”

Other strategies could include awareness campaigns on the impact of unauthorised use – similar to those by the film industry around online piracy – and highlighting the safety risks of counterfeit parts. “There are lots of companies that failed to respond to disruptive technology – the Kodaks, the Polaroids – that just aren’t there any more. So it’s something to be thinking about early.”

The law would inevitably need to change, Sophie Eyre, Bird & Bird, told delegates. “It’s obvious that the demarcation lines between manufacturers and consumers are changing. Issues of traceability and product testing are going to be very important, and what about questions of blame if there’s an injury. Is it the 3D model software? The printer? The operator? Or the warnings – or lack of warnings – as to the types of materials to use? All of those issues are going to arise, whereas before it’s been very clear-cut.

“It cannot be that it’s going to go under current consumer legislation,” she continued. “It will have to be elevated to negligence claims, and people are going to have to prove who within the chain put the defect into the product.” Very clear disclaimers would be vital for insurers, she stressed. “And finally, if you’re a business supplying someone with a product you need to know into which jurisdiction you’re supplying that product. But if you’re sending out CAD files electronically you don’t know if they’ve gone to Outer Mongolia, Belgium, or the US, where the penal damages can be horrific.

“My advice to everyone? Massive risk management. No one knows how the law’s going to change, but it has to.”