Q & A: The legal implications of 3D printing

February 04, 2016

3d printing

Margaret Ann Wilkinson and Jaime Holroyd display some objects made from a 3D printer

Professor Margaret Ann Wilkinson was one of the organizers of "3D Printing: Copyright and Other Intellectual Property Implications for Libraries" at the Copyright Symposium of the Ontario Library Association held in December in Toronto. Professor Wilkinson, along with Jaime Holroyd JD’11 and other colleagues from the Anissimoff Mann law firm, presented at the conference, the first of its kind in Canada to explore 3D printing.

Western Law spoke with them to discuss the legal implications of this emerging technology.

How does 3D printing differ from traditional printing?

Jaime Holroyd  – It’s probably best to think of it as manufacturing rather than printing. What you are really doing with a 3D printer is manufacturing an object, which is why it triggers a range of intellectual property (IP) legal issues that are not raised by traditional printing.

What are the legal implications of 3D printing?

Margaret Ann Wilkinson – Traditional printing generally falls under the Copyright Act and that statute has many exceptions for personal use. 3D printing, on the other hand, falls not only into copyright in some respects but also under areas of law such as patent, trademark, economic torts and industrial design. It can result in liability for the individual using the printer because these areas of law don’t have the same exceptions as copyright and can also create liabilities for the institutions providing the 3D printing technology.

Are you seeing misinformation around this new technology?

Margaret Ann Wilkinson – Definitely. This is an emerging technology and people are hearing what they want to hear. Equating 3D printing with traditional printing can lead to a false impression that there are extensive users’ rights connected with it and there are not; promulgation of the mischaracterization of this technology as printing is furthering misunderstanding.

What should it be called?

Jaime Holroyd − Perhaps “additive or personal manufacturing” because through this process you are creating an object. People creating something for their own use may not think that they could be infringing upon someone’s patent or trademark, but they may be.

What about the role of libraries?

Margaret Ann Wilkinson – 3D print technology is being rolled out in libraries across the country and these libraries are making the technology affordable and offering this as a service to the public as if it was just another printing technology. They appear to be proceeding as if these machines were just photocopiers, but that’s incorrect because the 3D mode of production is not analogous to photocopying.

What are the legal problems that could arise?

Jaime Holroyd  – Libraries could be attractive targets for lawsuits as companies try to stop people from reproducing their products. From individuals’ perspectives, they may be reproducing trademarked objects, like film or game characters, for example, without being aware of the legal implications. The software code used to “print” the object may be in the public domain, but this is not a complete defence because they are not considering the trademark or industrial design aspects of the law. 

What were the outcomes of the conference?

Margaret Ann Wilkinson – We tried to offer strategies so libraries could identify out of patent subject matter that could be used in 3D printing without infringement. One of the things we suggested was that it would be a good idea for large institutions to use a patent agent to identify materials out of patent for 3D printing. It’s not only public libraries who are installing 3D technology: many public educational institutions are using this technology in their art and engineering areas.

How are you bringing this to the classroom?

Margaret Ann Wilkinson – The planning for this conference began in the summer when we worked with law students and librarians to develop the conference.  This fall Western’s Intellectual Property course had a demonstration of 3D printing in class and, as we moved through the topics, we worked the example of 3D printing in every area of the law. Very few of the students had seen this technology in action, so they were fascinated to have a real life example in the classroom. I think it will make them better prepared to deal with this issue in their practices.

What do lawyers dealing with 3D printing issues need to know?

Jaime Holroyd  – Lawyers should understand the mechanics and applications of this new technology. It’s not photocopying; it is manufacturing and, if they approach the issues from that point of view, it will draw them into the areas of commercial and IP law that will protect their clients. Simply using legal instruments to protect their clients from copyright liability will not be enough to assist clients who are installing 3D print technology.