Is 3D Printing A Design Revolution Or An Intellectual Property Nightmare?

The concept of 3D printing has been around since 1945 when it first appeared as a short story. The story, Things Pass By written by Murray Leinster is a futuristic description of how 3D printers work today. 

It would take nearly 40 years before that vision was realized and the first 3D printer was built. The 1980s saw the first patents for FDM, SLA, and SLS printing technologies being filed. In 1987 inventor Chuck Hull produced the first working 3D SLA printer.

For most of the 1990s and early 2000s, however, 3D printers were mostly used by large companies and research institutes. At the time, 3D printers were too big and expensive for the average consumer.

The biggest breakthrough for 3D printing came in 2009 when the FDM patents filed in the 1980s elapsed. This opened the door for more companies to get involved. The 2010s saw a host of new companies entering the 3D printing industry which naturally led to better machines and falling prices.

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Today, 3D printers are sought after because of their ability to produce high-quality items at a fraction of the price of traditional manufacturing. With a 3D printer, anyone can create or duplicate just about anything they like. While this democratizes manufacturing it also raises serious legal questions.

If 3D printing allows you to copy a design and reproduce something without providing compensation to the original creator, does this make it an act of piracy?

In this article, we explore some of the legal ramifications of 3D printing. 

What Is 3D Printing?

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process in which a three-dimensional object is made by depositing material in layers. This is different from subtractive manufacturing in which an item is made by removing material. 

Both additive and subtractive manufacturing are computer-controlled processes. While they achieve the same end, there are a few key differences between them.

Additive manufacturing is faster, more flexible, and cheaper when building items in small volumes. This is why it is particularly used for rapid prototyping. 

Subtractive manufacturing produces items that are stronger and more detailed than anything produced from additive manufacturing. It is also much cheaper for building large volumes of items. This is why it is a better option for mass production. Source

3D Printing Technologies Listed

There are several 3D printing technologies including binder jetting, direct energy deposition, and sheet lamination. The most commonly used, however, are FDM, SLA, and SLS. 


Fused deposition modeling (FDM) is by far the most popular print technology. FDM printers are cheaper and easier to use than either SLA or SLS printers. In FDM printing, thermoplastic is melted at a high temperature and then deposited in successive layers to produce a 3D print. 


Stereolithography (SLA) hardens a liquid resin to produce a 3D print. The resin is hardened or “cured” through the use of light. A laser or projector is used as the light source. The main advantage of SLA printing is it produces more detailed parts and smoother finishes than FDM printing.


Selective laser sintering works like SLA printing. A laser is used to harden a material to create a three-dimensional object. The difference between SLS and SLA is that the former uses a powder as the raw material.

What Is 3D Printing Used For?

3D printing continues to grow driven largely by the development of a diverse range of raw materials. The most common application for 3D printing is in manufacturing where it is used to produce parts for the aerospace, automotive, and engineering industries.

3D printing has a long history in terms of its use in prototyping. But material advancements have extended its applications from mainly prototyping to producing end-use parts as well. 


Most parts used in the aerospace, automotive, and engineering industries are subjected to extreme conditions like very high or low temperatures, chemical exposure, and friction. This creates a need for parts with high temperature, chemical and mechanical resistance. 

In the past, you could only get that type of performance from parts made from subtractive manufacturing. Now, however, you can produce parts with the same performance through 3D printing. This is thanks to the development of strong materials like polycarbonate, HIPS, and metal-filled filaments. Source


Two of the main advantages of 3D printing are the reduced costs and easy customization of items. Creating a single or small volume of items is much cheaper with 3D printing. It is also much easier to customize the designs unlike with injection molding for example where a single mold can cost thousands. 

These reasons make 3D printing a perfect fit for the manufacturing of prosthetics. 3D printing can drastically reduce the cost and time taken to produce prosthetics.


3D printing can also be used to create one-of-a-kind art pieces. The affordability of desktop printers and the array of materials available open up a new avenue for artistic exploration using additive manufacturing. 

Previously, expensive subtractive manufacturing was your only option if you wanted to create anything like jewelry or through injection molding techniques.

3D printing makes it far much easier to duplicate an item. All that is required are the CAD files (3D model). This makes it easy to steal the design of an item without the knowledge of the owner of the rights to the design. Generally, 3D printing patented designs is illegal. With that said, 3D printing is a relatively new technology and the laws around it are still in development.  

Intellectual Property Law

Intellectual property law (IP) protects the rights of a creator or owner to an invention, design, music, or other pieces of work. IP law covers several areas including copyright, trademark, and patents.

  1. Copyright law provides protection for fine arts, publishing, entertainment, and software. It protects creators against the copying, presenting, or displaying of their work without their permission.
  2. Trademark law protects the rights of an entity to use a word, phrase, symbol, or design to identify its product, brand, or services. The Nike logo is protected under trademark law. 
  3. Patent law is there to protect the holder’s rights with regard to a new invention. This may be a product or process or design. The first designs for FDM printers were under patent until 2009. 

Copyright, trademark, and patent law can be used to enforce the rights of an entity or individual whose designs have been 3D printed without their consent. 

Technology advances much quicker than drafting, proposing, and passing legislation. This is why we still have large loopholes in laws governing new technologies like cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing. 


I am a very well experienced techie civil engineer who's extensively interested in 3D printing technology and even more captivated by the potential of 3D printing livable structures

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