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How will Australian copyright law affect 3-D printing?

3D printing presents new challenges for intellectual property law in Australia.

Three-dimensional (3-D) printing is an exciting new technology that promises to deliver incredible advancements in the coming years. The ability to just print out any number of objects, on the other hand, leads to some rather serious issues that must be considered, particularly in regards to intellectual property law in Australia.

According to the Australian Intellectual Property Report 2014, 3-D printing is a $2.2 billion industry globally. In Australia, it has featured in a number of innovations including arteries and heart valves at the University of Wollongong and jet engines at Monash University.

The problem for rights holders

Gartner projected that 3-D printing would lead to $100 billion in losses worldwide for IP holders by 2018.

While 3-D printing is an evolving industry, its growth comes with an increase in the potential for intellectual property infringement. In 2014, Gartner projected that it would lead to $100 billion in losses worldwide for IP holders by 2018.

For the unscrupulous, 3-D printing presents many opportunities for copyright law violation; with the proper equipment and design files, nearly any product or design can be printed out. The files can be created using computer aided design (CAD) software or by going over an existing object with a 3-D scanner. This second method essentially means that anyone with the right equipment can reproduce products at will.

How copyright law in Australia addresses 3-D printing

Until 3-D printing comes up against Australian copyright law in court, it is difficult to say for certain what is and is not considered a violation.

According to the Australian Copyright Council, original 3-D printed creations are protected as artistic works, giving the copyright owner the right to reproduce the design. These will either be classified as crafts or works of artistic value; to count as a craft, a design must be the result of craftsmanship and be intended for an artistic appeal. Clothing and accessories would generally fall under this category. 

With protected works, there are several factors at play. A 3-D printout of a 2-D drawing is probably copyright infringement, but a 3-D copy of a protected 3-D manufactured item is not. For 3-D items, copyright is maintained for one-off and artistic creations, but the copyright for an industrial drawing no longer holds once that item is physically created. If the creator filed for a registered design, on the other hand, that changes the circumstances.

When it comes to copyright ownership and 3-D printing, there are two main items in question – the printed object and the design from which it was created. In most cases, whoever owns the copyright of the design also owns the rights to the physical object, unless an alternative arrangement has been negotiated. Copyright holders for 3-D designs also have the same moral rights normally granted to rights holders for works.

As 3-D printing becomes more widespread and affordable, it is likely that Australian intellectual property law will have to evolve with it.