Instructional Technologist Lit Review: Low Cost 3d Printing

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Bradshaw, S., Bowyer, A. and Haufe, P. (2010) The intellectual
property implications of low-cost 3D printing. ScriptEd, 7 (1). pp.
5-31. ISSN 1744-2567

Link to official URL (if available):

Reviewed by: Nicholas Mattos

This article examines some important legal ramifications of low-cost 3D printing, by way of applying and extrapolating various types of intellectual property (IP) law in Europe. Published in 2010 it is very forward minded with regard to the proliferation of consumer level 3D printing and ongoing, as well as subsequent legislation. The authors begin with an informative overview of the industries and processes behind 3D printing, before describing in detail the various types of intellectual property (i.e. trademark, patent, copyright, etc) that may apply. The number of cases directly related to 3D printing was few, at the time, but the authors conclude that changes in the law could dramatically alter the manufacturing economy and society as a whole. I felt that this article was particularly pertinent, as ITS has recently installed a 3D printer in the Faculty Innovation Center (FIC), as well as in the College of Communication and Fine Arts. Growing interest in the technology necessitates a better understanding of the applications and implications for 3D printing in higher education.

The first section reads as a history of manufacturing and the development of industrial, commercial, and low-cost home-use 3D printers. This introduction provides a solid background for anyone who is new to the concepts behind 3D printing, or additive manufacturing. Without being overly technical the authors describe the process of computer-aided design (CAD), and how a 3D printer works by building up layers of material controlled by a computer, executing the design files. The most common type of files used in commercial 3D printers are stereolithography or STL files, but a variety of CAD programs can be used to design and print 3D objects. Software and hardware references are included by the authors, for those who would like to explore the technology in depth, and the first few pages are a who’s who of inventors and companies that have innovated or excelled in the marketplace. The authors even take time to explore a variety of uses of the technology in education, fashion, craft and hobby, as well as everyday life.

The main body of the article launches into a primer on intellectual property and defining legal terminology common to the UK, but seemingly applicable to the US and internationally. Examples are presented as hypotheticals involving Acme, a manufacturer “which produces a range of goods. Acme’s products are protected by various IP rights, such as design right, copyright, patent and trade mark.” (Bradshaw, 2010) These are put to the test against current laws protecting artistic works, commercial products, and other intellectual property. While the case studies are interesting, and seem to be well justified, they are still just the interpretations of 3 individuals. The authors also seem to come from a more technical, and not necessarily a legal background, so I would be interested to hear how a judge or lawyer interprets some of the same cases they reference. I would also like to read current US law and explore ongoing legislation on IP laws and 3D printing in this country and around the world for a broader scope.

The primary legal concern with 3D printing is infringing on patents and trademarks, but these are not always protected from personal use in 3D printing. It is the assumption of the authors that

“Purely personal use of 3D printing to make copies of household objects and spare parts does not infringe the IP rights that commonly protect such items, such as design protection, patents or trade marks. However, there are areas, such as the reproduction of artistic works, where IP rights such as copyright may be infringed. The advent of low-cost 3D printing may therefore pose challenges to several communities: manufacturers, who may be unable to enforce design protection against private users of 3D printing; artists, who may see a new forum for infringement of works previously difficult to copy, and users of low-cost 3D printing, who may face confusion as to what is legitimate and illegitimate use of the technology.” (Bradshaw, 2010)

While non commercial use of 3D scanners and printers to produce objects is often allowed, sharing of 3D PDFs or selling of 3D prints may be deemed illegal, depending on the circumstances. The authors do a good job of creating a variety of scenarios to explain each type of IP law, and how it might apply to Acme and the economy.Intellectual property rights protection will continue to be an issue as the tools of 3D printing become cheaper and more widely available. The determination of this article is that “the household domestic 3D printer is years, if not decades, from widespread use. Its impact will be gradual, as unlike file-shared MP3s it will not immediately provide for the reproduction of faithful copies. Rather, as its ease-of-use, fidelity and range of materials increases, so will its attractiveness and range of applications. This should, a least, allow for a more measured consideration of the legal issues that will arise from such use.” (Bradshaw, 2010) Creative Commons licensing is building a culture of open resource sharing, and global accessibility. The courts are likely to be busy in the coming years trying to interpret out of date IP laws that have trouble keeping up with the pace of technological advancement. In the mean time higher education is responsible for teaching the design and manufacturing skills that include using 3D printers, and other tech tools. It is important to consider the impact of intellectual property law on the work that we do, so that we provide students with the best information and most ethical techniques. I highly recommend this article to anyone interested in 3D printing, IP law, or manufacturing.

Additional resources: Up and Running with 3D Printing with with Kacie Hultgren, Makerbot Thingiverse,

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