Rapid prototyping, or 3D printing as it is called today was a method to create prototypes in industries before actual products were manufactured. It was both cost-effective and also a good method of determining if there were any defects before actually manufacturing the actual product. Technology advanced and times changed; 3D printing is now used to create anything and everything, including low-cost prosthetic limbs, skin and bones and many more such imaginable things! 3D printing technology is a revolutionary one and has been game changer for a number of industries.

So where does intellectual property come in? Just like every new creation, invention, artistic work is entitled to protection under the laws of intellectual property, 3D printing (the printer, the CAD software, the end product if its novel) are all entitled to protection in some form. The two obvious questions would be – who gets the protection and how does one protect their right. Obtaining protection is the second step, the first is to ensure that there is no infringement of any third party rights especially in the case of designs.

What can be protected?

3D Printer

The device itself can be protected as a patent provided it meets the requirements of being novel, involve an inventive step and be capable of industrial application. Given that there are several 3D printers in the market, it would be imperative to make sure the one you’ve created is novel and there is no prior art covering all the features of your invention before filing the application. The Indian Patent Office has a number of applications for 3D printing apparatus and methods, printing cartridges, printing material etc.

Computer Aided Drafting (CAD)

The CAD file is the key to creating prototypes using the 3D printer and since this will be in the form a software, it can be protected as literary work under copyright laws. This can definitely be a useful piece of evidence if one is looking to stop an infringer from manufacturing a similar end product. In India, it is not mandatory to file a copyright application to initiate action, but filing an application is advantageous as it helps to establish the date when it was first used/created. However, in the US it is mandatory to have a copyright registration to be able to sue for infringement of copyright.

End Product

The end product can be protected as a design and it’ll be the creator of the CAD software who should be entitled to the protection. However, if the CAD file was created as a ‘work for hire’ or under a contract of employment, then the employee/hirer will be the owner of the work. To file a design application, the first requirement is that it should be novel and should be capable of being applied to an article through an industrial process. The use of the 3D printing device to create this would comply with the industrial process requirement and in all practicality, the end product is applied to the design, so both the conditions are met. One of our previous articles titled How to file a Design application in India? discusses various aspects of filing a design application.

How to take action against replicas of designs?

In terms of enforcement, the issues concerning 3D printing are mainly with replication of designs. Some examples could be, 3D printed coco-cola bottles, components of automobiles, prototypes of branded toy cars and the list goes on. So when there is a case of infringement or passing off of your designs, who can be sued? The CAD software developer, the owner of the end product or the person who runs the 3D printing establishment, if that’s the case.

In most cases, it will be person who is the owner of the end product and the developer may not be liable in case it is a ‘work for hire’ or under a contract of employment. In cases where 3D printing establishments allow customers to bring their own CAD files and create their products, liability is not likely to be on the establishment as they are merely service providers.

There are a great number of IP issues cropping up due to the advancement in technology and 3D printing is definitely one such technology that’s giving rise to potential IP issues. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to undermine the boost that 3D printing technology given to various fields, one of the most important ones being the medical field. So IP issues aside, a big thumbs to all forms of technology aiming to make life better!

This article has been authored by Nikita, an IP Law practitioner.