Copyright Law and 3D Printing: with Great Opportunity comes Great Uncertainty?

May 21st, 2014 by

Copyright Law and 3D Printing: with Great Opportunity comes Great Uncertainty?
Imagine the ability to play music on a guitar that was created from a 3D printer or being able to print your own new pair of high heels. Imagine being able to capture these moments with your camera lens that you also made from your 3D printer.

3D printing could be the next big thing. Generally speaking, it is a revolutionary process that transforms concepts into 3D models. The digital concept is created using a computer-aided design (“CAD”) file which can rapidly create completely new prototypes, copy those which already exist and quickly modify the design along the way. The process is novel because it is “additive” as the digital file, after being uploaded into the printer, is turned into a 3-dimensional object layer by layer, as opposed to “subtractive” which is premised on removing material. Companies have managed to retail 3D printers for around $500.and hobbyists have been able to raise funds to build models through creative methods like Kickstarter and Crowdfunding.

Copyright Law and 3D Printing

The commercial appeal of 3D printers is real. 3D printers have the ability to revitalize the North-American manufacturing industry through a process known as “distributed manufacturing.” Distributive manufacturing is premised on creating value at geographically distant manufacturing centers of one enterprise and it threatens the economies of scale model. With the expansion of 3D printing, parts and products can be made closer to their point-of-sale and easily customized (it is as simple as tinkering with instructions rather than changing a physical product). The greatest impact would be in the auto and airline industry, which traditionally outsource production, although they have yet to buy in.

Legally Speaking

The ease with which a product can be copied or modified slightly has significant implications for our current methods of copyright protection. It can foster black markets which simply ignore the law or allow for a product to be tinkered just enough to escape the law. It could lead to the blueprints of common products being as closely guarded as the Coca Cola formula.

In 2012, the Canadian Legislature responded to the increasing complexity of intellectual property with the Copyright Modernization Act. Prior to this, the most recent amendment to the Copyright Act was during the time when cell phones were only used for making phone calls. One notable impact with respect to “fair dealing” was the expansion to include reproduction for the purposes of education, parody and satire. In the context of trademark law, a recent (but short-lived) American example is “Dumb Starbucks” which saw a fully operational knockoff Starbucks that was categorised as a “work of parody art.” 3D printing was recently used by start-up company nuPROTO, as they modelled an iPod docking station after the iron throne from Game of Thrones, only to receive a cease and desist letter from HBO. Copyright law is generally a self-policing industry and 3D printing increases the incentive and ability for people to try to turn a quick profit off someone else’s creation. It is only a matter of time before these legal battles make their way to Canada.


Copyright law and intellectual property law in general, is one of the most unstable and complex areas of law. Legislators are forced to remain reactive, as it is nearly impossible to predict the next disruptive technology and more importantly, if our laws are adequate to foster innovation while protecting against infringement.

For more information about Copyright and Intellectual Property, please contact our Toronto Intellectual Property Law Group.

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