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The print revolution

Dids Macdonald, CEO of Anti Copying in Design, discusses the opportunities and IP challenges of 3D printing

For designer makers within the gift sector, the development of three-dimensional (3D) printing has matured to deliver added value so that 3D objects can be more tailor made and bespoke, offering broader manufacturing scope. It also offers affordable options for prototyping in the design development process, from idea to marketplace. The evolution of 3D printers started some 30 years ago and is now developing at break-neck speed so no longer is this the domain of larger, more established companies but is now much more accessible to SMEs.

Whilst 3D printing opens up many possibilities, realistically, designers have to evaluate the challenges, especially where intellectual property is concerned. So what can 3D printing do? Nick Kounoupias, ACID's Chief Legal Counsel and ACID Legal Affiliate says, "At present there are commercially available printers that can be purchased that can produce objects in three dimensions made from acrylic, most fabrics, plastics, precious metals and certain hard metals such as steel. So anything from clothes and fashionable dresses to bicycles, parts for cars and robots can be produced without the need for industrial premises or skilled craftsmanship. Currently, genuine parts are routinely made for the automobile and aerospace industries using this technology. I have even heard of certain guns being produced from 3D printing."

So what are the legal implications? "These developments will cause legal uncertainty, much like the arrival of creative content supplied digitally did. Whilst it's very early days to consider what changes will be needed to the existing IP laws, it's obvious that more and more patents have already been sought, and granted for 3D printers. Increasingly, however, the focus will also need to be placed on enhancing the protection afforded to unregistered and registered designs under UK and EU laws. To this end it was very encouraging that last year the IP Act 2014 made it a criminal offence to intentionally copy a registered design. Copyright laws have very limited applicability to objects in three dimensions and not at all where products have been created through industrial means.

"The real challenges to the law will come when commercial competitors and organised criminals identify opportunities to produce cheap and poor imitation copies of well-known or novel furniture designs without huge investment, or risk, using 3D printing technology. What is then likely to happen is that the infringers will reverse engineer genuine furniture to understand how it's been made, then feed this information into computer aided design software, using this to create prototypes by 3D printing and finally, mass producing them.

"The implications are mind boggling. If entire and working cars can be manufactured in just 44 hours, how long will it take to reproduce less complicated products? 3D printing offers many opportunities to companies wishing to trade legitimately within all industries. But it also offers opportunities to those wishing to trade illegally. The challenge for the giftware industry and for law makers is to ensure that the existing laws offer maximum protection to those in the industry and to ensure that they're fit for the 21st century. If they need changing, lobbying organisations such as ACID must be supported to ensure that those changes are identified, supported and implemented."

Design registration makes absolute sense but it's limited to preventing copies for commercial purposes (and it's the same with unregistered rights) so this presents design ownership challenges when the 'would be' creator at home uses your design for domestic purposes, thus cutting the original design out of the equation. For the majority of UK giftware designers, who rely on unregistered design rights, the ACID Design Databank offers third party evidential proof of a design's existence from the date the design is lodged.

Nick Kounoupias of DMH Stallard is one of the leading figures in the UK IP world handling all kind of IP disputes, Nick is well known for his lobbying, he's also a fully accredited mediator.

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