Is Canadian IP law equipped to deal with 3D printers?
3D printer + 3D scanner = 3D photocopier.
In theory, anyway.
The price of 3D printers has been dropping for years. And now, affordable 3D scanners (like the Canadian-designed Matterform or the MakerBot Digitizer) are just around the corner. Combine the two, and you get what Matt Mason calls “new disruptive technology… that’s going to change things again the way the internet did.”
Mason is the author of The Pirate’s Dilemma, and Executive Director of Marketing at Bittorrent. “We’re going to see a lot of people and a lot of industries hailing this as the worst thing that’s ever happened in the world,” he says.
One particularly thorny side of this is intellectual property. This week on Spark, we ask whether current Canadian laws are equipped to deal with the IP issues posed by 3D printing and scanning.
Patents, copyright, and trademarks
"I think there are a lot of questions, legally, that are raised by 3D printing," says Paul Banwatt, a lawyer at Gilbert’s LLP.
When it comes to intellectual property law, the “big three” are patents, copyright, and trademarks. With a 3D printer or 3D scanner, “all three of those things can potentially be infringed,” says Banwatt.
"Copyright covers expression of ideas," he explains. "Patents cover inventions that are new and useful and not obvious. Trademarks are meant to protect businesses that are identifying themselves using particular marks."
For instance, the Nike swoosh is a trademark. But trademarks can also be 3D objects. “You can look at the Coke bottle as an example of a 3D object that has been trademarked.”
So if I’m a 3D hobbyist, and I scan or print a commercial object at home, am I breaking the law? The short answer: it depends.
"In the world of trademarks, there is fairly large room for someone to do something that’s non-commercial," says Banwatt. "If you’re just doing it in your house and you’re not planning to sell anything or do anything commercial, then you’re likely probably not doing anything that’s going to be offside trademark law. On the other hand, in patent law, if you’re alone in your basement with all the lights off and no one can see you, but you [3D print] a patented object… you are likely infringing that patent even if you’re not doing anything with it beyond making the thing."
Banwatt believes that the responsibility to protect IP will fall to rights holders. Hobbyists can’t be expected to do a patent search every time they download a 3D model from Thingiverse, or before they fire up their scanner.
"These are things that people pay law firms thousands of dollars to do before they go into business."
Banwatt believes it’s important to start a dialogue between rights holders and end-users, but is cautious about changing laws preemptively, before we fully understand the impact of these technologies.
"If you get it wrong, you can end up causing more hurt than doing any good. You can end up hurting an industry that’s just trying to get off the ground… the last thing we want to do is update our laws in a way that makes 3D printing less desirable in Canada."
"We’ve probably got a decade to figure this out."
For Matt Mason, infringement is inevitable.
"There’s going to be rampant piracy because of 3D printers," he says. "This is a new way to distribute and create media and objects. That’s going to be scary. That’s going to cause piracy. Those are short-term problems. In the long-term, it’s going to be awesome."
His optimism stems from a belief that we still have time to iron out the legal and business models around 3D printing and scanning.
"We’ve probably got a decade to figure this out. The question is, will we? As a society, will we start to look at this proactively? Will we start to adapt to the business model before the business model forces itself on us as industries?"
You can listen to Nora Young’s interviews with Matt Mason and Paul Banwatt on Spark 217.