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Intellectual Property: The New Frontier

By Mike Worsnop - 30 Jul 2013

Some fairly grandiose claims have been made about the potential effect of new technologies such as 3D printing on traditional manufacturing industries, but based on the rapid developments in this area some of those claims are not nearly as overblown as they might first appear.  And as things stand, current intellectual property (IP) laws are unlikely to provide much in the way of protection for manufacturers and other IP owners.

For the uninitiated, 3D printing is the process of creating a three-dimensional object from a digital model or blueprint using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.  This can be contrasted with traditional techniques where material is progressively removed to reveal a final form - think of a bowl carved from a piece of wood.

And this is not theoretical.  3D printing has already been successfully used to render a miscellany of objects from toys and jewellery to spare parts for commercial use. Perhaps the high water mark was reached in May when a US company designed the first firearm using 3D printing technology and published the instructions online - before the US State Department demanded their removal.

Until recently the cost of 3D printers, the limited range of products capable of being produced and the time taken to manufacture those products, limited the use of 3D printers for mass production, but that is changing.  The implication for manufacturers and other IP owners is the ability for copyists to reproduce objects quickly and cheaply from anywhere. To quote the Economist, the real potential for 3D printing is that it will make it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermine economies of scale.

Unfortunately for IP owners, but perhaps not the ordinary consumer, current IP laws appear inadequate to deal with the challenge of this new technology.  Many manufactured objects are never patented or the claims are inadequately expressed.  Design registration, only available to protect certain designs, is IP's poor cousin and not commonly utilised.  Copyright may apply where the original product is scanned and copied or if the product is a work of artistic craftsmanship but may be of little assistance otherwise. By avoiding use of IP owners' trade marks, copyists can also avoid laws against trade mark infringement.

What will be needed is legislative change, in much the same way as copyright laws have been changed to address problems with file sharing, format shifting and other disruptive technologies. But this is unlikely to occur any time soon and will ultimately be driven by New Zealand's international trading partners and New Zealand's response to international treaty obligations. 

This article was based in part on the work of a number of our Meritas affiliates, including Matthew Hall, a partner at Swaab attorneys in Sydney who has been widely published on the legal ramifications of 3D printing.

Meritas is a network of law firms worldwide. Via our involvement in Meritas we can provide our clients with access to specialist lawyers in most other countries.


Mike Worsnop


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