African intellectual property law, practice and policies. This weblog provides news, information and comment on IP law, practice and business deals right across Africa. Ce blog propose des actualités, informations, et commentaires sur la législation et la pratique en matière de propriété intellectuelle et de droit des contrats d'affaires en Afrique. For some insight into the origins of this blog click here.
Monday, 19 September 2016
Anything you can think of can be 3D printed. But what about intellectual property?
Whatever object you can think of, as long as it’s not giant-sized, can
be 3D printed these days. NASA is sending 3D printers onboard spacecraft, to print
spare parts if and when they’re needed. Nike is 3D printing prototypes for
bespoke footwear, having partnered with IT company HP, and in the US, the first
3D printed pills have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.
3D technology is already being used for things like hip and knee
replacements. Dental technicians are using them to design highly customised
dental implants, bridges, crowns and dentures, and shells for hearing aids can
be very accurately moulded to a patient’s ear, thanks to a 3D printer.
Advanced 3D printing technologies have become
accessible due to the expiration of key patents held by the original pioneers
of the 3D printing industry, releasing the monopolistic control over printing
processes that have traditionally been confined to the industrial or healthcare
Quick to seize the opportunity, 3D printer
manufacturers like MakerBot and Ultimaker have paved the way for accessible 3D
printing, and prices for these printers range from R37 500 to
R84 995. A MakerBot Replicator Z18, which can build an object of up to 12
inches in width and depth, and up to 18 inches in height, is selling on
Takealot.com for R133 000.
DionWired, meanwhile, is selling a XYZ 3D
printer for 9990 ZAR, and is soon bringing out the Da Vinci 1.0 AiO, which can
scan and replicate objects up to six inches high, which will retail at
14 990 ZAR.
The intellectual property
implications, of course, are far reaching. Sized up against the rapid evolution
of 3D technology, and its quickly expanding accessibility, IP laws globally are
simply inadequate, and there’s a dilemma: How can designs, patents and copyrights
be protected, while allowing 3D printers to positively impact society? For
example, one of these impacts could be the ability of a rural clinic to 3D
print a prosthetic knee for a patient, instead of waiting weeks for it to be
manufactured and transported back from a laboratory.
Sinal Govender, an
associate in the IP practice at Norton Rose Fulbright
points out that emergency medical equipment, including syringes and needles, can
potentially be 3D printed, which would greatly relieve the scarcity of these
resources in outlying areas. “Service delivery could be taken to another level,
and the costs of manufacturing and transport could be significantly reduced,”
If you’re a designer
whose protected products are being flagrantly pirated via a 3D printer,
however, it’s another story. And consider the fact that guns can potentially be
3D printed, as well as illegal drugs. Like all technology today, 3D printers
can be applied to positive outcomes, as well asnegative ones.
This illustrates the
imperative to find a balance in the IP law concerning 3D printers, that serves
to protect creative ideas and control the reproduction of harmful objects, but doesn’t
stifle the enormously beneficial potential of 3D printing in areas like education
and medicine, both rights entrenched in the Constitution, says Govender.
“The 3D printing world involves all
aspects of IP, including copyright, patents, designs, and trademarks, so it’s a
complex legal landscape to navigate, and laws and regulations haven’t caught up
with this new technology, either in South Africa or elsewhere. Various industries are currently debating the
issue, and we may see each industry submitting their individual concerns so
that the legislation can be updated and amended.The fact remains, all IP rights owners should
be taking particular care to ensure that their IP is protected in an
environment where it’s increasingly easy to infringe it,”she says.
We all know about theft of software off the internet. Well, 3D
printing can actually manifest the product or object itself. We are only
beginning to see the applications of this technology, thus the law needs to
apply itself with equal fervour if creative ideas are to be protected in
future, while allowing technology to change the world for the better.