Can You Patent a Shape? 3D Printing on Collision Course With Intellectual Property Law

Posted on April 7, 2011

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3D Printer
A uPrint 3D printer in action

What’s the News: Earlier this year, designer Ulrich Schwanitz, a Dutch designer, made a real model of an “impossible” object—the  Penrose triangleusing a 3D printer; he then started selling these models, through a company that printed them, for $70 apiece. When another designer figured out how to make a 3D blueprint for the shape, and put it up on Thingiverse, an open-source site for printable objects, Schwanitz lodged a copyright complaint against Thingiverse.

Although Schwanitz soon rescinded the complaint, it was the first instance where 3D printing ran smack up against copyright law. ars technica hasan excellent piece looking at intellectual property issues that are likely to arise as 3D printing becomes better, cheaper, and more widespread, letting consumers create all kinds of stuff at home.

Issues Such as…

  • The root of the problem is that people will be able to make things they’d otherwise buy—many of which are protected by patent, copyright, or trademark. The ars article poses this scenario: “Broken dishwasher part? Download the relevant CAD [computer-aided design] file and print it out in plastic.”
  • Some sites share blueprints for things under copyright, Ars points out; Thingiverse has CAD files for Darth Vader heads. George Lucas hasn’t kicked up a fuss about it (the Lucas empire might now know about it yet) but, once more people have 3D printers, companies are likely to be more concerned about what CAD files are being shared.
  • Even sites that make you pay for designs could charge less than it costs to buy the real thing; one site already sells designs for this chair and  this tea set, for instance. If sharing someone else’s designs for free is bound to stir up some corporate ire (and lawsuits), selling those designs will likely make companies and designers madder, and more litigious, faster.
  • There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this piece. Go ahead and take a look.

Image: Flickr /  Tom T

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