Is 3D printing the next frontier for copyright infringement?

3D printing is turning toys into digital information, leading to piracy problems.

People are expecting big things from 3D printing in the near future. Blueprints for easily replicated objects are readily available online for hobbyists and small manufacturers who own a 3D printer to use free of charge or for a fee. While 3D printing remains unfeasible for many items, easily replicated objects are beginning to find a niche market, including toys of copyrighted cartoons and movie figures. Toys, which are essentially made out of plastic, require little in the way of raw materials.

This may pose some problems in the future for the film industry, which relies on toys and games as a supplement to income generated from movies, especially for movies which underperform at the box office.

Currently, relatively few people are making counterfeit plastic toys to resell at a profit. For one thing, few consumers have a 3D printer, although hundreds of thousands more are expected to ship in the next year, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. As the market grows, it may become more common to find drastic markdowns for 3D-printed toys which are exact copies of those sold in stores. In addition, it can take hours to create a plastic toy from a 3D printer, meaning that many individuals using 3D printers in this way will be using the toys in their own homes, not for resell.

Parallels to digital media

The current state of 3D printing reminds many of the digital revolution in music. When digital media files first began overtaking physical copies of music and movies, many music companies alienated consumers with lawsuits regarding the illegal downloading of songs. So far, few film companies have chosen a similar approach. Hours after the new Star Wars trailer debuted, for example, a blueprint to make a replica of a stormtrooper's gun was available for download. Blueprints to make several Disney toys are available online for download and use in 3D printing, and Disney has yet to issue any enforcement action against a consumer or distributor of 3D blueprints.

However, it is not clear how long this will last, especially as 3D printing becomes more commonplace and sophisticated. Soon 3D printing may be the cause of numerous copyright infringement claims. Online distributors of 3D blueprints may also find themselves subjected to litigation.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act currently governs much of the law on digital copyright infringement. The law, passed in 1998, ushered in the notice-and-takedown method often used today to combat piracy, in which the owner of copyrighted materials notifies the ISP of copyrighted materials and the ISP subsequently removes the content.

Importantly, however, the DMCA offers some immunity to ISPs and hosting companies which allow users to post videos and other content to their websites. While ISPs cannot actively post up copyrighted material themselves, and must have some sort of anti-piracy policy in place, they are not held responsible from liability for the copyright infringement of other users.

As the 3D printing market grows, similar issues may arise for blueprints to various copyrighted toys.

Need help with intellectual property issues?

If you are concerned about copyright infringement, or if your intellectual property has been stolen, contact the experienced attorneys at Taylor Dunham LLP to discuss your options and rights under the law.

Keywords: 3D printing, copyright infringement, litigation.