How to protect your IP from 3D printing knock offs

With 3D printing and manufacturing on the rise and devices to print in 3D readily available, intellectual property theft is now easier than ever. Here, CBP’s Dan Brush explains how to protect your IP against “knock offs".

With 3D printing and manufacturing on the rise and devices to print in 3D readily available, intellectual property theft is now easier than ever. Here, CBP’s Dan Brush explains how to protect your IP against “knock offs".

3D printing and manufacturing devices are easily available in the marketplace and re-create a wide range of items, from "static" items such as latch keys, to items with moving parts, such as engines and other complex widgets. This technology has made mass production of "knock offs" of physical objects easy and relatively inexpensive. 

How does 3D printing work?
The first stage of 3D printing is mapping a physical thing with digital modelling using computer aided design (CAD) or some other animation modelling software. The modelling software creates a "blueprint" of the object to be copied. The copy is made by the 3D printer by dividing the blueprint into digital cross-sections allowing the printer to "build" it layer by layer. 3D printers can create replicas using a wide variety of material including metals, paper, plastics, rubbers and other organic substances. 

With 3D printing on the rise, here are some key tips on how you can protect your business from theft of intellectual property.

Design registration: Design is the way an object looks – its shape, its visual appeal. A design refers to the features of shape, configuration, pattern or ornamentation, which gives a product a unique appearance, and must be new and distinctive. Registration of a design provides the owner with a monopoly to manufacture, sell, license, import, and use articles embodying the protected design in the applicable territory for a period of years (set on a country by country basis). 

Design registration is intended to protect designs that have an industrial or commercial use. Eligibility for design registration varies from country to country, but in general, to apply successfully for design registration, the creator of the design must be able to show that the design is new and distinctive. In addition, your product must be of a type permitted for design registration protection. In Australia certain types of products such as medals, coins, flags, coats of arms and integrated circuit boards are ineligible for design protection.

Patent registration: A registered patent protects new inventions – ideas – and generally includes protection for how patented things work, what they do, how they do it and how they are made. A registered patent provides its owner with the ability to take legal action to stop others from making, selling and using the patented invention without permission from the patent owner in the country where the patent applies. Rules for patent applications vary from country to country but in general, to apply successfully for a patent, the inventor must show that the invention: 

  • Is new – unique.
  • Has an inventive step that is not obvious to someone with knowledge and experience in the subject.
  • Be capable of being made or used in industry. 
  • Is of subject matter capable of patent protection (for example, not a scientific or mathematical discovery, theory or method or artistic work, or other prohibited type).

Copyright: Copyright is used to protect an owner's rights in written and visual works. Copyright can also be used to protect certain aspects of physical objects, such as artistic works, including paintings, engravings, photographs, sculptures, collages, architecture, technical drawings, diagrams, maps, logos, layouts and typographical arrangements.

Copyright automatically applies to a work on its creation. However, the copyright registration process informs the world of the owner's interest in the work and confirms the creation date of the work. It is important to recognise that copyright protection may not apply if a product could have been protected by registration of a design, but design registration was not pursued.

Passing off and similar protections: If a product is not protected by design, patent or copyright laws, an owner whose work has been copied in an unauthorised manner may be able to stop the infringement by relying on consumer legislation that prevents actions which are intended to mislead or confuse consumers. In addition, if the unauthorised copies include a brand name, brand infringement actions may be pursued.

Dan Brush is a member of the legal team at Colin Biggers & Paisley.

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