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How to protect your intellectual property in the 3D printing age


Modern manufacturing techniques are changing the way businesses make goods, but do they also increase the risk of your products being copied?

Nick Booth, head of Harrison Drury’s manufacturing and engineering team, looks at whether businesses need to do more to protect their intellectual property.

3D printing, the process of manufacturing a three-dimensional object by adding layer upon layer of designated materials, is becoming ever more accessible in the modern world.

Historically, manufacturing is a subtractive process in which raw material is reduced to the desired size and shape. As a result, 3D printing has the potential to reduce waste, as well as the cost of labour and raw materials, over traditional methods.

It is this lack of waste, combined with the speed at which products can be printed, that has made 3D printing so popular. Its use directly reduces inventory, motion, waiting, and over-processing, causing a drastic improvement in pull-systems and overall compliance with the lean manufacturing system.

The process has been used recently to manufacture personalised mobile phone cases, prosthetics and a form of epilepsy medication. But it is the ease with which products can be replicated, and the relative lack of expense in doing so, that can cause concern in relation to Intellectual Property Rights (IPR’s).

Copyright issues

Although copyright might exist in the images and designs printed on the surface of a product, or in the blueprints used for creating 3D objects, it can only exist in the 3D object itself if it is a sculpture or work of artistic craftsmanship.

Functional objects may be protected by design rights, which can be registered or unregistered, although such rights would not be infringed if the copying were done privately and for non-commercial purposes.


In some circumstances, copying by 3D printing can be prevented by a patent. A high profile example is Lego, which recently acquired a patent in an attempt to prevent others from 3D printing its bricks without consent. As well as providing protection for Lego’s IPRs, this also allows them to be exploited by offering licenses to consumers who want to print their own Lego bricks.

Distinctive shapes that are subject to a Trade Mark, such as a Coca-Cola bottle, are protected from being scanned and copied. However, Trade Marks for 3D objects are extremely difficult to acquire, which Coca-Cola learned earlier in 2016 when its application to Trade Mark its latest bottle design failed.

In this environment, it is important that designers and manufacturers, as well as anyone else in possession of 3D printers, are aware of how IPRs are created, protected, exploited and infringed.

Harrison Drury’s specialist team can assist with this. For more information on making the most of your intellectual property, please contact Nick Booth, or Sean Gibbs on 01772 258321.

Nick Booth is head of Harrison Drury’s specialist manufacturing and engineering team which advises businesses on a wide range of legal issues and commercial pressures. These include supply chain and logistical challenges, regulation, consolidation and growth decisions, technology and innovation, brand protection and intellectual property issues, product liability, funding, and skills and workforce development.

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