Can You Patent a Shape? 3D Printing on Collision Course With Intellectual Property Law

By Valerie Ross | April 7, 2011 10:00 am

3D Printer
A uPrint 3D printer in action

What’s the News: Earlier this year, designer Ulrich Schwanitz, a Dutch designer, made a real model of an “impossible” object—the Penrose triangleusing a 3D printer; he then started selling these models, through a company that printed them, for $70 apiece. When another designer figured out how to make a 3D blueprint for the shape, and put it up on Thingiverse, an open-source site for printable objects, Schwanitz lodged a copyright complaint against Thingiverse.

Although Schwanitz soon rescinded the complaint, it was the first instance where 3D printing ran smack up against copyright law. ars technica has an excellent piece looking at intellectual property issues that are likely to arise as 3D printing becomes better, cheaper, and more widespread, letting consumers create all kinds of stuff at home.

Issues Such as…

  • The root of the problem is that people will be able to make things they’d otherwise buy—many of which are protected by patent, copyright, or trademark. The ars article poses this scenario: “Broken dishwasher part? Download the relevant CAD [computer-aided design] file and print it out in plastic.”
  • Some sites share blueprints for things under copyright, Ars points out; Thingiverse has CAD files for Darth Vader heads. George Lucas hasn’t kicked up a fuss about it (the Lucas empire might now know about it yet) but, once more people have 3D printers, companies are likely to be more concerned about what CAD files are being shared.
  • Even sites that make you pay for designs could charge less than it costs to buy the real thing; one site already sells designs for this chair and this tea set, for instance. If sharing someone else’s designs for free is bound to stir up some corporate ire (and lawsuits), selling those designs will likely make companies and designers madder, and more litigious, faster.
  • There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this piece. Go ahead and take a look.

Image: Flickr / Tom T

  • Joey Joe Joe Shabadoo

    Fender has exclusive intellectual property rights to the shape of guitar headstocks and bodies, and this has been enforced not only in the US but in other countries, such as Japan.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Interesting point, Joey, but it looks to me like the courts have rejected Fender’s copyright claim over the design of their guitars, saying the Fender design is pretty generic. But as MusicRadar points out, their designs might be generic because people have been copying them for decades; I’m not a guitar-design conoisseur and can’t speak to that point. Even if that is the case, I think Fender might be out of luck—the law demands that copyright holders vigorously defend their rights from the get-go.

    More importantly, that’s the worst name I ever heard.

  • WiKKiDWidgets

    In ten years 3D printing technology will be able to print a new Carburetor for your car or a new Human hand. There will bit Bit torrents out there being Shared for copies of the newest Smart phone and the newest gaming system. (XBOX 2030 512bit with 4.7 million GPUs!!) Although I do see a major concern for intellectual property. It isn’t much different than the issue we already have today. China routinely ships billions of dollars of fake goods all over the world every day. Every Movie and Song created is out there being traded freely by even the most casual internet user. Every effort by corporations to protect there I.P. is being thwarted by the court systems in varying countries. I love 3D printing myself, but I design my own things. I’m personally torn both way on the subject. I do not condone stealing, but I also do not condone corporate patents limiting ideas and innovation. I fully intend to have a 3D printer on my computer desk within the next year or so.

  • Joey Joe Joe Shabadoo

    Ok, so they did lose the body cases. But the headstock certainly was won.

  • Ignatyus

    I was about to write an article about how 3D printing will be changing the “other products” market in much the same way as the Music industry and, currently, the publishing industry, have been forced to change. Nice links in here, I like.

  • Astrida V

    I think the whole revolution in 3D printing should force some new discussions in copyright and patent law. Patents are too expensive for the average individual to file, and while copyright law offers some protection to an inventor its usually not enough to stop infringement.

    We need a mini-patent, something cheaper to file, so that designs can be protected better.

    At the same time this article also seems to point to another problem. What if people are inventing the same idea at about the same time in different places. The Penrose Triangle might be such an item, as people have known of it as a puzzle for some time, and the first sculptural model was created in 1934.

  • N W Barcus

    “Every Movie and Song created is out there being traded freely by even the most casual internet user.”

    I don’t think that’s at all true. And it’s especially not true if the song is by One Soul Thrust.

  • Womprat

    People have been making their own replacement parts for all manner of products and machines for a long long time.

    Not a lawyer myself but there would be no legal precedent for a company to argue a patent or copyright was invalidated if an indivdual repaired something they owned by making their own replacement by 3D printer. It would be hard to argue too. 3D printer is just easier than a lathe, casting, existing milling techniques and not substanially different.

    It gets interesting if you start handing out the plans, but bare in mind anyone can access patents and indeed study the actual part. Things going to get messy when money changes hands.

  • Jotaf

    I think that business models that rely on restricting information flow will eventually have to stop one day; unless it’s a piece of information that the company doesn’t distribute and so can hide it, like the Coca-Cola formula.

    I guess music and CAD designs will be kinda like software — “professional” products coexist with a very sizable community of people who do it just for fun (open-source). Ideas will be the domain/creation of the public and state-sponsored endeavors (like academic research), and companies will just be in charge of production and doing things that people actually pay for.

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  • Natuursteen

    The penrose triangle is realy cool! But a awnser about patenting a shape in my opinion is no! Things like the penrose triangle would not be populair if it is patented because it would not be used at many places and people just don’t know it exists… That would be a bad thing for such a nice shape like the penrose triangle!


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