3D print service providers and copyright (B2B)

3D print service providers and copyright
3D print service providers and copyright

In my previous blog I provided an overview of the various intellectual property rights which may play a role in 3D printing. Now I am going to talk about the special situation 3D printing service providers are in.

By Hub Dohmen

If I would address all IP rights which might become problematic with respect to 3D printing exhaustively, you would still be reading tomorrow. I shall therefore mainly focus on IP law that has quite a lot in common with the subject: copyright. I will audit a 3D printing service provider and make a small digression to the customer.

The 3D printing service provider usually has the following business model:

  • offering scans (3D printing files, usually STL, that can be downloaded);
  • offering to scan (offering to create a file from an object provided by the client);
  • offering prints (already finished physical object that the provider created based on the provider’s files);
  • and offering to print (making a physical object based on a file from the customer).

Under copyright there are two things that a person other than the holder may not do: reproduce and publish.

Under copyright there are two things that a person other than the holder may not do: reproduce and publish. Also, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to make adaptations (adaptation right), on the basis of an international treaty (Berne Convention).

Regarding offering scans (“download our files for designer furniture”) and offering prints (“buy our 3D-printed designer furniture”) there’s not much to say: the first is offering an adaptation to which the copyright holder has an exclusive right – or possibly even ‘simply’ prohibited reproduction – and the second is definitely prohibited reproduction.

With respect to offering to scan an object provided by the client (to create a file hereof) it is important whether it is the employee of the service provider that makes the scan or the customer. For copyright infringement it is not relevant if you know you are infringing: it is simply forbidden to make adaptations. So the 3D printing service provider that allows employees to scan all objects that (commercially acting) customers put on the table, has a problem.

Hub Dohmen’s law firm Dohmen Advocaten consists of legal specialists who all had a technical, design or art education and have work experience in these fields. The firm specializes in Intellectual Property, IT and Technology, and Art.

What I wrote in the previous paragraph about scanning also applies to an employee who prints a file that a client provided: in this case the assistant is illegally reproducing.

So far I discussed the 3D printing service provider who executes instructions for the customer. What about the service providing company where scanners and printers are operated by customers themselves? In this case the reproductions/operations are not done by the 3D printing service provider, but by the customer. As long as the service provider has no knowledge of large-scale infringement, it seems he will be fine.

When he does have knowledge about this however, it could be that the service provider receives a claim for ‘facilitating infringement’. This is covered by the doctrine ‘tort’ by the way, not by copyright infringement. In tort, the injured party has less ‘tools’ at his disposal in copyright infringement, but for the service provider of course this is still bad news, so don’t allow large-scale infringement by your customers!