Boise State on Business by Gundars Kaupins: 3-D printing raises questions of copyright and patent law

Gundars Kaupins, professor of management, College of Business and Economics at Boise State UniversityApril 23, 2013 

Gundars Kaupins

Sam loved the new 3-D printing machine. His new faucet design can be created in the lab and quickly copied to other collaborators in the country. The speed of physical communication greatly reduces his development costs.

But Sam was concerned one day when Bill copied a new design of a wrench he also had been tinkering with and sent it to a product developer. That developer made an unauthorized use of that design and put a "wrench" on Sam's plans to market a new set of tools.

As with any invention or new design, Sam needed to set up protections for whatever was created. 3-D printing provides extra challenges. Existing court rulings have not distinguished how 3-D printing relates to copyright and patent law.

In any case, Sam, in his employment handbook and contracts, needs to make statements that any new intellectual property (inventions, designs, prototypes) should not be shared with others unless there is specific authorization from Sam. Major security-related assets such as keys and locks should be copied only with permission. Clear penalties for unauthorized use, such as discharge, should be defined.

3-D printing should increase business possibilities. Body part replacement can be made easier with custom-fitted materials. Tools can be quickly and inexpensively transported, and 500 new physical designs of a crankshaft can be compared much faster.

The law and attached court cases will need to catch up. Expensive jewelry designs, machine parts, keys and guns can be copied that can violate copyright, patent, and criminal laws. Guns are a particular issue because it is possible for a felon to copy a gun for his or her own use. The technology might not be adequate now to replicate guns down to the exact materials used, but future gun replication may come very close.

With unauthorized copying of gun parts and keys, various criminal laws associated with theft and burglaries could be violated. The possibility for chicanery will increase with the capability of creating a 3-D object from a 2-D photograph. A key left for a few seconds on a table could be photographed, copied, and used to break into a building.

How would you like to have your face copied and literally "plastered" everywhere in inappropriate places as if you were part of a wax museum? One potential law violated would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment can occur if your face, and the rest of your body, would be used inappropriately. Body part copying also could be a problem for privacy laws, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the National Labor Relations Act, Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

3-D copying could cause problems with safety laws such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act. An example would be if a copy of a machine part is made for a plant a thousand miles away. The copy is not an exact duplicate because it is made of a different material from the original part. The copy causes the machine to malfunction, and that in turn causes an accident.

In summary, 3-D printing has great potential to enhance the speed of parts and equipment delivery. Company policies restricting its use can help. Unfortunately, laws and their related court cases are evolving with the new technology.


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