21 Oct
2020

Unravelling the concept of 3D printing: knowing your rights in India

Co-published

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of creating a 3D solid object through sequential layering of material such as plastic, rubber or metal from a digital model.

The 3D printing process begins with either a digital file in which the object to be printed is digitally formatted using computer-aided design (CAD) programs or a 3D scanner. While CAD files can be downloaded from the Internet, they can also be made using different software. The file is then exported to a 3D printer, which transforms the digital model into a physical object.

3D printing and intellectual property in India

The challenge faced by IP legislation with respect to 3D printing is that the means of production in cases of 3D printing is decentralised (ie, the manufacturer is typically the end user who can simply download a file, either themselves or via an intermediary, and can create the object using a 3D printer). In other words, the object protected under IP law itself is never sold. Therefore, proving infringement can be difficult.

An analysis of how different IP laws are entangled with the concept of 3D printing is provided below.

Copyright
Under the Copyright Act 1957, copyright automatically exists in original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, cinematograph films and sound recordings. With the advent of 3D printing technology, any person can scan a copyrighted work and reproduce the same with the help of a 3D printer. Such reproduction without the permission of the original owner leads to copyright infringement.

Interestingly, under Section 14(c)(1) of the Copyright Act, a copyright grants an exclusive right to the copyright holder to reproduce the work in any material form, including storing it in an electronic medium. In view of this, a CAD file and source code are regarded and protected as original artistic/literary works, and the copyright holder has a right to protect digital copies of such work.

The main challenge for copyright holders is to control the unauthorised transmission of CAD files over the Internet. One way to do this is to grant licences in respect of the CAD file with restrictions on the manner of its use. These licences operate as creative common licences and rely on the consent of the author exclusively.

Patent law
A patent confers to the patent holder the exclusive right to prevent third parties from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the patented invention. However, 3D printing facilitates easier infringement of patents since CAD files, which contain patents, can be printed at multiple locations under limited visibility of the patent holder. In order to safeguard their rights, patent owners can target either the people that are facilitating the infringement  by providing the CAD files of the patented product or websites that sell or share the CAD files that instruct 3D printers to make the patented invention.

Patent law protects both the 3D printing machines and the processes that these printers carry out. A typical 3D printer may be covered by hundreds of patents, including patents for the hardware (eg, the filament to the printer heads, the platform and circuitry) and the associated software.

Trademark law
Under the Trademarks Act 1999, a trademark is infringed when a party other than the trademark owner uses, in the course of trade, a mark which is identical with, or deceptively similar to, the registered mark in relation to the relevant goods or services. However, even owners of unregistered marks that can establish goodwill have a passing off right to prevent others from using the mark.

A CAD file may contain a digital version of a trademark owner’s mark, and the unauthorised use of such mark may constitute infringement or passing off if it occurs in the course of trade. The CAD file is equivalent to a digital counterfeit as anyone with access to the file and a 3D printer would be able to print out the trademark as is.

Additionally, as 3D shape marks are also trademarks, a 3D replica of a shape mark will also constitute infringement.

Applications of 3D printing in various fields

The table below provides a brief analysis of some of the fields in which 3D printing has benefitted society as a whole.

Industry

Impact of 3D printing

Food industry

  • 3D printed food provides unprecedented control over the shape, colour, texture and nutritional content of food.
  • It allows healthcare practitioners to customise nutrition as per their patients’ needs. However, all 3D printed food is required to comply with the requirements of the Food Safety and Standards Regulations 2016.

Pharmaceutical and medical industry

  • 3D printing of drugs allows healthcare practitioners to customise drugs, as well as print drugs with doses customised for each patient.
  • It also enables surgeons to practise complex surgery beforehand by 3D printing prototypes of their patients’ organs.
  • 3D printing eases the process of conducting clinical trials as CAD file can be easily modified to alter drug composition. Therefore, scientists can conduct clinical trials of different iterations of a drug, thereby saving on the cost of pharmaceuticals.
  • Medical devices such as orthopedic and cranial implants, surgical instruments, external prosthetics and dental restorations can also be manufactured using 3D printing.

Defence industry

  • 3D printing of weapons for the defence industry allows a high level of customisation while simultaneously cutting down on manufacturing costs and inventory waste.
  • In India, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is using 3D printing to print components for the indigenously developed Hindustan Turbofan Engine-25. Further, Defence Research and Development Organisation laboratory the Gas Turbine Research Establishment is using 3D printing to build prototype engines for India’s aircraft programme.
  • However, the availability of 3D printable guns is an area of concern. In October 2014 28-year-old Yoshitomo Imura was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for making 3D printed guns and sharing the process online.

Comment

To protect the intellectual property contained in a 3D model, the model should be encrypted to make the process of duplication more difficult. Additionally, making authentication compulsory for 3D printed or printable objects by embedding QR codes, barcodes or other microstructures on the surface can help to prevent counterfeiters from creating accurate images of the model. Without a CAD file or source code for the 3D model, counterfeiters are limited as to what images can be taken from the product alone.

It is important to note that 3D printing can help to reduce waste and the associated environmental impact by reducing use of single-use plastic in packaging. 3D printing also has a smaller carbon footprint as the printed goods need not be packed and shipped across long distances, but rather can be produced locally with the help of a 3D printer.

Market intelligence solutions firm 6Wresearch predicts that India’s 3D printer prototyping and materials market will reach $79 million by 2021. Nonetheless, 3D printing technology is still in its nascent stage, as 3D printers are not currently affordable for regular households. However, as the technology improves and the cost of 3D printers decreases, 3D printing will become as accessible to users as computers are today.

 

For further information contact:

Avanee Tewari
Chadha & Chadha
View website

This is a co-published article whose content has not been commissioned or written by the IAM editorial team, but which has been proofed and edited to run in accordance with the IAM style guide.