3D Printing and Copyright Laws: What’s the Big Deal?

3D printing in action

To call 3D printing a disruptive technology is an understatement. Never before have we been able to produce individualized, customizable parts for such a low cost and on such a massive scale.  Never before could we create precise geometries that are not possible with other manufacturing methods. Even more, the customization available in 3D printing leads to further successful consumer products. Take Invisalign, the invisible braces, as an example. Align Technology, the maker of Invisalign, has produced more than 2.7 million units—with each part unique to the user. Without 3D printing, this product would be cost prohibitive.

By reducing the time between the design and the manufacturing, as well as having a low cost, 3D printing is the wave of the future. In 2013, Boeing reported that it had produced more than 20,000 parts used for various commercial and military aircraft, simply by using 3D printing. The Dreamliner, where South Carolina is one of two final assembly and delivery points, includes about 30 3D-printed parts. Simply put, 3D printing is not just for rapid prototyping, but also for serious design and manufacturing.

However, with each disruptive technology comes friction with the law and legal rights—especially with intellectual property. Copyright protects movies, music, art, articles, photos and the like and protects the creator or author from someone “copying” their work. 3D printing allows for the “copying” or reproduction of a three-dimensional structure. Therefore, there has been a tendency to use copyrights to prevent or control the ability to copy and reproduce 3D shapes.

But it is not that clear, especially when we include patent rights and trademark/service mark rights. For example, a new and originally created abstract sculpture would be protected by copyrights while a new car part could be patent protected. Generally, an object includes functional and artistic elements; the copyright would only protect the artistic feature by “severing” them from the functional aspects. In the case of Carol Barnhart Inc. v. Econ. Cover Corp., a mannequin for displaying shirts was at issue. The creator sculpted the original design from clay, which was then use to make store display models. Because the principal function of the mannequins was to display shirts—a utilitarian function—the court did not find that the aesthetic features of the design should be afforded copyright protection. In this line, the wavy form of a bike rack was also found to be too utilitarian to be afforded copyright protection, even though it originated as a wire sculpture. Brandir Int’l, Inc. v. Cascade Pac. Lumber Co.

Additionally, the ramifications of having copyright protection include the application of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which allows for a copyright owner to have material “taken down” from websites that the copyright owner believes are infringing.

To further complicate matters, the 3D printing process itself creates friction between the law and technology. First, there is the original part. This has what intellectual property protection can be afforded it, based upon the type and use of the article. To reproduce the part, the next step would be to create a design file from the part. This design file, a computer file or model, can be created by using the dimensions of the original object and “reverse engineering” the design file (CAD file) or by directly scanning the object using what is effectively a 3D copying machine (3D scan). Copyright protection can be afforded to the creator of the design file that is separate from the IP protection in the original object. Then there is the reproduced object from the design file itself. In essence, multiple layers of possible protection create a world of possibility—but also potential confusion.


Under Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution—also known as the Copyright Clause—the Congress of the United States is empowered to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries (the Copyright Clause).


South Carolina passes the first state patent law: “An Act for the Encouragement of Arts and Sciences.” This law generally protected copyrights but did state, “The Inventors of useful machines shall have a like exclusive privilege of making or vending their machines for the like term of 14 years, under the same privileges and restrictions hereby granted to, and imposed on, the authors of books.”


The Copyright Act of 1790 is the first federal copyright act to be instituted in the United States; “offenders shall also forfeit and pay the sum of fifty cents for every sheet which shall be found in his or her possession…” Additionally, the Patent Act of 1790 becomes the first federal patent statute of the United States; it protected inventions that were inventions “not before known or used” and “sufficiently useful and important.” Both of these acts preempt state law.


John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry invent the first electronic computer at Iowa State University and apply for a patent for it in 1939. The distraction of World War II causes the inventors to abandon the application.


Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly patent ENIAC, which they claim to be the first digital computer patent. This patent is held invalid by the U.S. Federal Court in 1973 on the grounds that ENIAC was derived from the design of Atanasoff and Berry


South Carolina native Dr. Charles Townes receives the Nobel Peace Prize for his development of the laser, a critical component to model 3D printing.


Charles Hull, co-founder of 3D Systems, invents Stereolithography—the process of 3D printing that allows 3D objects to be created from digital files.

3D Systems, Inc. files a slew of patent applications directed to “enhanced data manipulation and lithographic techniques to production of three-dimensional objects, whereby such objects can be formed more rapidly, reliably, accurately and economically.”


The first stereolithographic (SLA) machine is manufactured by 3D Systems. An ultraviolet laser is used to solidify photopolymers into ridged 3D parts.


In In re Beauregard, the Federal Circuit provides that software is classified as patentable subject matter, as an article of manufacture.


Solid State Laser allows for the reformulation of 3D printing materials.


3D Systems, Inc. receives Patent No. 5,597,520—one of the principal patents that covers 3D printing.

The US Federal Circuit decides in State Street Bank and Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc., holding that software programs that transform data are patentable subject matter. This case is regarded as having opened the flood gates to computer patents—especially method patents.


A 3D-printed scaffolding is used as a substrate on which cells from a medical patient are grown. The resulting structure is implanted into a patient for urinary bladder augmentation.


Dr. Adrian Bowyer at University of Bath founds RepRap which builds a 3D printer using parts printed with the 3D printer.


A technology breakthrough with selective laser sintering (SLS) occurs, allowing for the mass customization and on-demand manufacturing of parts. This innovation changes the landscape of 3D printing and its application.


In February, Ulrich Schwanitz sends a cease and desist to Shapeways to take down his 3D Penrose Triangle design. This is believed to be the first assertion of copyrights (DMCA) against a website that hosts 3D designs. Schwanitz ultimately succumbs to public pressure and makes his design public domain.


The year would also see the world’s first 3D printed aircraft (model) and car, in addition to new materials hitting the scene, including 14 karat gold and sterling silver as 3D printing material. Jewelry design will never be the same.


LayerWise prints a lower jaw bone that is implanted into a patient.


HBO sends a cease and desist letter to stop CAD files of the “Iron Throne” from Game of Thrones from being downloaded to 3D printing hobbyists.

Soon after, the U.S. State Department demands that Defense Distributed take down its 3D CAD design for the AR-15 component—the company’s first fully-3D printable rifle. Many key U.S. Patents owned by 3D Systems, Stratasys, Jerry Zucker, USC and DTM Corp expire. These expirations open the path to using CAD systems, dispensing material through a nozzle based upon the CAD design and filling the void with a second material—stereolithography.


Katy Perry’s lawyers demand takedown of 3D printable Super Bowl star “Left Shark.” The purportedly infringing 3D design, ironically, was created by Sosa, the same creator of the 3D printed Iron Throne iPhone holder.

Meanwhile, two major U.S. Patents expire: No. 5,733,497  “Selective Laser Sintering with Composite Plastic Material” (which provides the method for producing a 3D object by fusing powder materials), and No. 5,762,856 “Method for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography” (which provides a method of producing a 3D object from a material that is capable of solidifying upon exposure to radiation or synergistic stimulation).


As predicted by Luca Escoffier, every household in American will have a 3D printing machine.