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Will 3D printing usher in the next wave of Internet piracy?

Adam Bender | Feb. 17, 2015
Many Australian intellectual property owners don’t realise they’re not protected, claims IP attorney

"It may not be piracy in the way we've seen with music in that it might be perfectly legitimate copying of people's notional intellectual property."

This is because, in Australia, copyright protection of a design is lost when it is industrially applied by making a certain number of copies. However, Fraser said it might still be possible to gain protection by registering the design.

The IP attorney predicted there will be an increase in the number of registered designs, which to date is a form of copyright protection that he said has been relatively overlooked.

"It might be something that people need to do more of to stop people."

The legal landscape
An ongoing review before the Advisory Council on Intellectual Property, commenced in 2012, has asked if designs law should be reformed.

"Some argue we need stronger designs protection" because the current regime is "unattractive compared to copyright law and patents law," said Rimmer.

"Others argue we don't want an anachronistic regime like designs law holding back some of the innovation in relation to 3D printing."

Fashion is one area that would be subject to the industrial application issue raised by Fraser, but where some argue there should not be IP regulation, said the academic, citing an argument by Christopher Sprigman in the New York University law professor's book, The Knockoff Economy. Sprigman wrote that fashion flourishes when people copy and build off of others' designs.

In addition to the design protection inquiry, there is a debate over whether Australia needs new copyright exceptions such as a defence of fair use, Rimmer said. The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) has recommended a fair-use defence to promote competition and innovation.

There have not yet been many legal disputes involving 3D printing, as it is still a nascent technology, Fraser said. However, with businesses are beginning to invest in the technology, the issue is likely to become more prominent in the next three to four years, he said.

Rimmer said there have been a few "skirmishes" related to take-down notices over designs based on copyrighted IP. However, he said these have largely been lawsuits that have not been followed through or significantly tested in court.

The 3D printing issue has raised some interest in federal parliament. Jim Chalmers, a Labor MP from Rankin, Queensland, wrote a 2003 op-ed in The Guardian that noted potential legal challenges ahead:

This goes further than just the question of intellectual property. 3D printing and similar technologies have led to a further blurring of the lines between goods and services. There are challenges for global trade as a result, associated with measurement, assigning property rights and responsibility for quality assurance.


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