3D Printing

3D Printing DENIED – Patents and Copyright Law

One massive step forward in development in the world of making, and a law sends the creative world back a step. You could argue that relying on expired patents and copyright to make money is more copy work than creative, but is the UK beating a dead horse to save old designs from being shoddily copied for profit?

This copyright and patent law has been changed on July 28th 2016 in the UK after the European Union decided on the law change, which requires all members to follow suit. Who knows if this’ll change if the Brexit goes through. The change will mean that it is illegal to reproduce or 3D print objects which have had their copyright protection extended.

It’s important to bear in mind the protection that copyright laws give to designers who want to profit from their designs without others taking that profit from them. However, to copyright designs that have already been in the public domain seems wrong. Does that then make any copies from when the design was in the public domain therefore illegal? Surely, if something has become freely accessible, for it to then become private defeats the purpose of it being private to begin with?

Charles Ray Eames Lounge Chair, photo credit to Dezeen
Charles Ray Eames Lounge Chair, photo credit to Dezeen

So how does copyright law work?

The UK has been different from the rest of the EU for quite some time with their copyright laws in one particular area. Section 52 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA) entitles designers to copyright protection of their artistic work, and continues for 70 years after they pass away. However, in the UK this was different for industrially manufactured artistic work, such as work that is mass produced for profit, providing protection for only 25 years.

However, with this change, these kinds of work have their protection time increased from 25 years to 70 years like other non industry items, so all types of art will be protected up to 70 years after the creator has died.

This has some dramatic upsides and downsides, depending where you stand.

As a product designer, its great to know that anything I design will be protected for so much longer than before, but there are downsides to this happening now, especially in the world of 3D printing.

The law not only lengthens the length of protection on currently protected products, it also affects products that were in the public domain, which qualify for extended copyright protection. These products then go from being freely available to copy and modify, to being illegal to do so.

If someone is to copy works, or a substantial part of those which have been given copyright protection again, or any protected piece of work in fact, the creator has the right to take legal action such as an undertaking, injunction or being awarded damages.


How does this affect 3D printing?

Many copied designs that were reproduced in virtual reality and then 3D printed can no longer be reproduced. To avoid infringing copyright, those who were originally creating replicas of these products will have to either stop creating them, get permission from the creator or owner of the rights to the product, or even rely on an exemption.

Now copyrighted products that were created before the implementation of this law change need to either be sold or destroyed.

Some industries are feeling the force of the law more than others, such as the furniture and jewellery industries, as well as those who deal with replicas. Products they could freely replicate which were older than 25 years can no longer be so easily copied, so businesses either need to obtain some sort of license for these products, edit how they work or even the products being produced, or stop copying and selling those products completely.

3D printing dips into many different industries, which includes businesses within those industries who rely on replicating products which are in the public domain. You could argue that no one but the copyright holder should ever have a means to profit from their product, but that’s all a matter of perspective. Some argue that banning knock-offs that are obviously not the real deal stop buyers investing in ‘value for money’ rather than paying for an expensive brand. However, you could also say that the maker is well within their right to charge what they please, and if they fail as a company for pricing their products to high then it’s their problem.

I guess a similar situation (though admittedly an outdated one) could be back in the days where violin makers often put the label of a different maker inside violins they made. In many cases this was in fact done without the intent of confusing a buyer into thinking it was the real deal. They used the plans of famous violins such as those created by Stainer and Stradivari to create theirs, so would put the label reading ‘Stradivarius’ or ‘Stainer’ whilst also including the actual location in where it was made, such as ‘Czechoslovakia’ or ‘Germany’. Admittedly this was done when makers were usually dead and when laws were very different, and many makers of fakes these days do try to sell their fakes as the real thing. However neither Stradivari or the designer of legitimate designer items would have ever gotten a sale from the person buying a fake as the original is simply out of budget and therefore out of reach.

German Stradivarius copy, credit to pcviolins
German Stradivarius copy, credit to pcviolins

Though I’m all for creators being the sole moneymakers for their products, everyone finds themselves buying a ‘knock-off’ at some point in their lives, and having a shorter length of time for copyright protection also keeps designers and manufacturers on their toes to make sure their products are the best on the market and the best for value for money.


As alwaysexemptions to copyright include:

  • Non-commercial research and private study
  • Text and data mining for non-commercial research
  • Criticism, review and reporting current events
  • Teaching
  • Helping disabled people
  • Time-shifting
  • Parody, caricature and pastiche
  • Certain permitted uses of orphan works
  • Sufficient acknowledgement
  • Fair dealing
  • Technological protection measures


What the law change doesn’t protect

The law however, doesn’t cover intangible things, such as ideas, that’s what a patent is for. If someone creates their own work using the same idea, the person with the original idea doesn’t have much of a basis with copyright protection alone. I guess one example could be 3D printing itself. If you wanted to create a 3D printer using the same idea, so long as the idea wasn’t patented, you could also create your own 3D printer. Hence why more and more 3D printing companies are patenting their technology as they advance their 3D printing techniques. So long as you are creating something original all yourself, then you won’t infringe copyright.

Another copyright-free way of enabling others to use your ideas is by using creative commons. Sites like Thingiverse allow users to publish their work on their site with different creative commons licences such as:

  • Creative Commons – Attribution: Give credit to the creator, remixing and changing is allowed, commercial use is allowed
  • Creative Commons – Share Alike: Give credit to the creator, remixes must be distributed under the same licence, remixing and changing is allowed, commercial use is allowed
credit to Thingiverse
credit to Thingiverse

This does keep some doors open in regards to 3D printing enthusiasts being able to print things that they didn’t create and even profit off of it, but many ‘things’ on Thingiverse just don’t add up to the popularity of a Charles Ray Eames chair. Either way, all we can do is make the most of the situation, change and move forward, and hope that the law change in some way helps the creative community overall.