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3D printing is a challenge to IP rights

Article by Marco Vatta (Spoor & Fisher)

In 1984, Charles Hull applied for a patent in the United States of America for an “Apparatus for production of three-dimensional objects by stereolithography”. The technology disclosed in this patent is the first disclosure of what is commonly known as 3D printing or additive manufacturing. Interestingly, when Hull invented the technology he prophesised to his wife that it would take 25 to 30 years before the technology would make its way into the homes of people. Well, here we are today, as it is now possible to purchase your very own 3D printer for as little as R4 000.

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a process of creating three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. In this process, an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object has been created. This enables the manufacture of complex functional objects, which uses less material than traditional methods of manufacture. A large variety of 3D printing processes exist but all involve a fusion of materials, layer upon layer, with heat, chemicals, light, electron beams or glue – either by extruding material or selectively fusing a bed of powdered or sheet material one layer at a time.

The boundaries of objects created by one of the many methods of 3D printing are endless, life-enhancing and revolutionary as it is now becoming a commonplace tool in fields such as engineering, regenerative medicine, product design, architecture and manufacturing with applications in the automotive, aerospace, biomedical, construction and prosthetic industries.

The list of advantages becomes extensive when 3D printing methods are implemented and chosen over traditional methods of manufacture. The advantages may include reduced overhead costs due to the reduction of material, labour and transport costs; it has the potential of being useful to small isolated communities and developing countries as it creates equal access to a wide range of commodities; and it provides for advances in healthcare as customisable human body parts and organs can now be manufactured by means of 3D printing.

However, this breakthrough technology raises questions in all areas of intellectual property law given that there has been a shift from the exclusive domain of industrial manufacturing to widespread application in our own homes. Intellectual property law is designed to ensure that the right holders of intellectual property receive credit and compensation for their creations. This provides an incentive for the continued development and creation of intellectual property.

The main concern to holders of intellectual property rights is that its use makes it technically possible to copy almost any object, with or without the authorisation of those who hold rights in that object and without compensation, therefore the question: “Is the South African intellectual property landscape in its current form capable of embracing this technology?”

The intellectual property law system is relatively well equipped to deal with some of the challenges presented by 3D printing, particularly the protection of products manufactured by 3D printers and the enforcement of rights granted by intellectual property law. However, 3D printing only requires a computer-aided design file of the product to be manufactured and access to a suitable 3D printer. It therefore does not require high levels of technical skill in manufacturing and as a result creates the potential for a large number of new infringing parties to enter the market, which makes policing and enforcement more difficult. It is therefore expected that intellectual property infringement is to increase due to the ease at which products can now be reproduced by a layman anywhere in the world.

This article was first published in Business Day.

Spoor & Fisher is a proud Partner of the NSBC.