In the United States, the late nineteenth century brought a massive surge in industrial activity as companies developed novel ways to manufacture all kinds of products in massive factories employing large numbers of employees. As time passed, the development of technology focused on decreasing costs and man power. In the 1980s, one such innovative technology was born and developed. This technology, commonly known as 3D printing, was, and still is, protected by numerous patents. Generally, 3D printing is the creation of a three-dimensional object by successively adding layers of material (e.g., resin, powder), wherein the addition of material and formation of the object is controlled through a computer. As a result of the broad patent protection accorded early developers of 3D technology, entry into this new area of more cost efficient design and manufacturing was cost prohibitive for most small businesses and non-business consumers. However, a number of early patents in the field have begun to expire. For example in January of this year, one of the core patents protecting 3D technology, U.S. Patent No. 5,597,589, entitled “Apparatus for producing parts by selective sintering,” expired. The expiration of this patent, and others in the field, is credited, in part, for the emergence and growing popularity of 3D printers which can now be purchased for as little as three thousand dollars. As a result, 3D printing technology has now become more readily available to small businesses, and even the general consumer. Indeed, because of the proliferation of home 3D printers general consumers are now afforded the opportunity to manufacture an endless array of items on their own using a technology, that until recently, was only available to relatively large commercial enterprises. But with the broadening use of 3D printing has come a number of new legal issues, including the issue of copyright protection regarding the design of 3D printed items and the software that directs a 3D printer to manufacture of such materials.
3D printers “follow” instructions set forth in computer-aided design (CAD) files to make objects composed of plastic, metal or other materials. With the proliferation of the 3D printer and the desire to ‘make things’, consumers have begun to share CAD files, and indeed, numerous sites have already arisen wherein consumers can upload their files for others to use or enhance. However, much like music sharing, some of the CAD file sharing sites not only offer original user created CAD files, but offer other third party files that may be protected by copyright or that offer the blueprint for a design that is protected by copyright. Indeed, the CAD file itself may be proprietary software, and/or result in the creation of an object whose design is protected.
Akin to the era of rampant copyright infringement of music, most notably resulting from the music file sharing service “Napster” and similar concerns, the swift and vast availability of this technology is ushering in a similar era of CAD file sharing sites and correspondingly creating similar conflicts with intellectual property rights, most notably, copyrights. One such CAD file sharing site is Thingiverse.com. And it, not surprisingly, is already fielding numerous ‘take-down’ notices pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) asserting unauthorized exploitation of owners’ copyrights in the CAD files. Similarly, cease and desist letters, such as one issued by HBO demanding the cessation of attempted sales of an Iron Throne iPhone dock, which was based on still images of the throne in Game of Thrones, have already begun. As use of the home 3D printers increases by private consumers, as with the initial problems in the music file sharing era, enforcement of copyrights will prove difficult. Although use of the DMCA will assist in the removal of CAD files or objects created by 3D printing from a website via the issuance of a “takedown notice”, this only addresses the specific website and only addresses the identified copyright-protected material on that site. Further, as the DMCA offers insulation for many of these websites, the removal of the offending file or object is all that will be accomplished. Monetary damages will have to be sought from the party uploading the file or object. Thus, copyright owners may again be faced with having to sue individual consumers.
As website providers have no obligation to review their sites for potential infringement, the onus is on the copyright owner to enforce their copyright. Thus, the question remains. How can a copyright owner effectively enforce their copyrights? Perhaps sites akin to iTunes, which instead of music offer CAD files that one can purchase for a small fee, will be one solution to this potential problem for copyright owners. At the present, a solution is not readily apparent.
Regardless of the solution to resolve the tension between the desire to use the newly released technology and the protection of copyrights, one thing is clear, as 3D printers become more commonly used over the next few years, owners of valid copyrighted material will need to be vigilant in identifying illegal use of their copyrighted property. Similarly, users of 3D printers will need to exercise great care to ensure they are not replicating copyrighted objects if they hope to avoid exposure to liability for infringement. This emerging technology offers individuals or startups the ability to create, at a relatively low cost, a product of great value. But this opportunity also allows a party to unwittingly incur liability if they produce something, intentionally or otherwise, which infringes the copyright belonging to another.
Attorney Anna M. Vradenburgh counsels and represents clients facing trademark, copyright, patent and other intellectual property issues, providing expert advice regarding intellectual property protection, exploitation and rights enforcement.
Ms. Vradenburgh can be contacted as follows:
The Eclipse Group
6345 Balboa Blvd, Suite 325,
Encino, California 91316