Author: Erikas Saukalas, Associated Partner, Attorney-at-Law, Head of the International Relations Division at METIDA
3D printing technology is designed for creating tangible three-dimensional items. A design developed by means of computer equipment is sent to a designated 3D printer which can produce almost anything, provided that the item is within the printer‘s parameters. 3D printing services are offered by an increasing number of organisations. Since 2013, a 3D printer is available at the Centre for Scientific Communication and Information in the Vilnius University Library.
The democratisation of the development and copying of tangible items, i. e. the transfer of 3D technologies for public use means that it is highly probable that such items will be disseminated as widely as digital works. Such “freedom-promoting” technology poses and will most likely continue to pose a threat to intellectual property as computer files used in the 3D technology process can be copied, unlawfully shared or even forged. The 3D printing and copying technology becomes increasingly accessible to anyone. Any person having access to a 3D printer can create an identical copy of any specific item. Therefore, a risk of potential infringement of the intellectual property rights arises.
Copyright. The main issue that the copyright holders will face is a widespread independent production of copyright objects in the market by methods that can be neither detected nor controlled. In order to protect their rights, copyright holders will have to monitor the distributors of digital files used for 3D printing online and to warn such persons about the potential infringement of copyright.
Patent rights. An infringement of a patent right may occur if a vulnerable product is held, used or offered to potential buyers. However, this does not apply, to products that have been developed for non-commercial use. A well-described patent will serve as a sound basis for the protection of the patent holder‘s rights. In this case the content of a patent description plays a very important role, therefore, approaching experts on patent and intellectual property rights is recommended.
Design rights. The same protection principles apply to both patent and design rights. In order to protect a design right, prior to putting or publishing a product into commercial use, it would be worthwhile to:
- file an application for the industrial design registration, which will protect the aesthetic features of the product (i. e. its visual aspects: shape, configuration, pattern or ornament);
- ensure that a confidentiality undertaking document is signed by the person to whom the design information is going to be disclosed;
- incorporate authentication mechanisms into products, e. g. by marking products with trademarks or protective prints on packaging or by obtaining authenticity certificates;
- increase awareness of or even warn clients and potential product users about the use of products that have not been copied, and the ensuing guarantee of quality.
Trademark rights. Where trademarks exist in the form of a stamp on three-dimensional items that can be copied by means of the 3D technology, there is a risk that the person copying the item will infringe the rights of the trademark holder. Therefore, it is recommended that trademark holders should register their trademarks.
For trade secret protection purposes, organisations are recommended to:
- prior to starting the use of external 3D printing services, conclude confidentiality agreements with the 3D service providers, paying attention to the careful wording of the agreements;
- those organisations that can potentially be subjected to infringement of intellectual property rights should update the existing agreements with employees by detailing the content of confidential information and the employees‘ obligations, as well as by providing for more serious consequences for a failure to fulfil such obligations.