Intellectual property and consumer 3D printing

Doctoral Thesis


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Disruptive technologies influence the application and development of intellectual property. Additive manufacturing, colloquially known as 3D printing, is one such technology that has a profound impact on how goods are created, disseminated and consumed. This technology enables, in an unprecedented matter, the decentralised manufacturing of goods, supplemented by user-based creation and instantaneous dissemination of the underlying digital models. From the perspective of intellectual property law, the focus of this thesis is on analysing of how consumer 3D printing creates legal ambiguity and enforcement issues that affect a multitude of actors, in interrelated, conflicting and potentially overlapping capacities. It focusses on the intellectual property regimes that are at the forefront of 3D printing, including the laws of trade marks, copyright, patents and designs. Emphasis of this thesis is on the law of South Africa; however, in the absence of judicial guidance, an examination of the laws of the United Kingdom and the European Union provides additional insights and guidance. The development of arguments in this work is grounded in technological and social premises, determined by the characteristics of the consumer 3D printing ecosystem and the additive manufacturing process, including design creation, dissemination and production. The underlying research question of this thesis is how the intellectual property framework can be used and further optimised to promote consumer 3D printing. In this context, it investigates how the interests of the following key actors can be balanced: (i) rights holders that typically wish to control design dissemination; (ii) design sharing platforms that seek to facilitate design creation and dissemination; and (iii) consumers who require access to digital designs. This thesis submits that a balance can indeed be struck, subject to complementary actorand situation specific responses. In addition to these responses, this thesis proposes minor amendments to the current South African intellectual property framework, supplemented by the clarification concerning the application of intellectual property rights, and the implementation of non-restrictive digital rights management systems.