3D Scanners: A 3D Printing Milestone or Legal Headache? Maybe both. - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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3D Scanners: A 3D Printing Milestone or Legal Headache? Maybe both.

3D Scanners: A 3D Printing Milestone or Legal Headache? Maybe both.

We’ve all heard the hype, right?  Many emphatically predict that 3D printing will be the next big thing.  Some forecast 3D printing as a disruptive technology akin to the file-sharing sites that wreaked havoc on the music industry.  However, as The Atlantic recently reported, 3D printers are not flying off the shelves.  The leader in 3D-printer sales sold only 5,925 3D printers last quarter.  Some people are using 3D printers to create objects, from the amazingly cool (a dad recently printed a prosthetic hand for his son) to the incredibly terrifying (the first 3D-printed metal gun is here).  However, desktop manufacturing is certainly far from being mainstream.  That said, certain advancements may help the technology get there, and a notable development is here.  It comes in the form of 3D scanners.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, makes a three-dimensional object from a digital model (an .STL file).  A 3D printer reads the digital model and lays down successive layers of material to create the final shape.  Sounds easy, right?  Even if you have a 3D printer, you still need a digital model of the object you wish to print.  Well, you can make one using computer-aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software.  Problem solved?  Not quite.  Most of us wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to work these 3D modeling programs.  You can purchase and download ready-made designs from sites like Shapeways or Thingiverse, but the difficulty in developing your own digital models places a significant wrench in a future where DIY 3D printing is commonplace.  The arrival of 3D scanners, however, just might help make that future a reality.

In the past, 3D models often needed to be created from scratch.  Now, owners of 3D scanners can copy any object that fits within the scanner’s specifications.  The MakerBot Digitizer is one of the 3D scanners available for purchase, which creates digital blueprints of three-dimensional objects.  Basically, it rotates an object on a turntable while lasers generate points used to create a map of the object.  Based on reviews, the Digitizer isn’t flawless and might not be totally consumer ready.  The $1,400 scanner doesn’t always make perfect scans and the objects cannot exceed 8 x 8 inches or 6.6 pounds.  3D Systems recently released a 3D scanner of its own, the Sense.  The Sense is a handheld scanner (roughly the size of a staple gun) that can scan objects up to 10 x 10 feet, and at $400 it is significantly cheaper than the Digitizer.  Neither scanner is perfect but both represent an impressive advancement that makes a future of mainstream 3D scanning and printing seem more probable.

It’s all very exciting, but you might want to think twice before you scan and print your mom’s Cartier Love Bracelet.  According to an article in Forbes, the legal implications of 3D scanning and printing are complicated.  Forbes shares an example Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge wrote about in a white paper about 3D printing and related legal issues.  Suppose someone wants to print a doorstop, which includes color and carvings along the side.  “If the individual were to reproduce the entire doorstop, including the print and carvings, the original manufacturer may be able to bring a successful claim for copyright infringement.”  This is because decorative objects are protected by copyright.  “However, if the individual simply reproduced the parts of the doorstop that he cared about – the size and angle of the doorstop – and omitted the decorative elements (the print and carving), it is unlikely that the original manufacturer would be able to successfully bring a copyright claim against the copier.”  Trademark issues may also arise.  The article explains that, “trademarks exist to protect customers from confusion about the origins of a product, meaning that if you’ve created something yourself for your own use you’re in the clear: you know where it came from, after all.  However, selling that object on is more problematic.”  The technology is new so the legal precedent is scant.  The future of 3D printing is unclear, but watch this space.

Lindsey Kister

Lindsey Kister is a second year Fordham law student and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal. Her interest in IP comes from her seven years working in the ad world and a natural curiosity in all things nerdy. In her spare time, she consumes unhealthy amounts of television and explores her East Village neighborhood.