3D printing has been a major growth technology in the last year.
As designers’ experiment with 3D printed dresses and shoes, debate is growing in the retail industry about the possibilities the technology offers and how it could revolutionise consumer behaviour.
As with all new technologies, it is important for fashion retailers to understand the impact and challenges that 3D printing could have on their businesses.
Intellectual property: The challenges
Using 3D printers to print objects for personal, non-commercial use is unlikely to infringe most intellectual property rights. This is due to exemptions in relevant laws that allow individuals to use intellectual property rights owned by others in ways that would be illegal in a commercial sense.
Key points for retailers to consider include that:
- registered design and patent laws expressly exempt personal use from being infringing, and trade mark infringement requires the use of a mark to be in the course of trade;
- copyright law has no such exemption, but there is complex case law considering what copyright protections exist for 3D products.
Protection from infringement claims for a home user of a 3D printer will not necessarily apply to a retailer. For example, a manufacturer might bring infringement action if a fashion retailer was exploiting the manufacturer’s registered designs to create and sell that manufacturer’s clothing products through ‘in-store’ 3D printing. In this case no personal use exemption would be available.
What is your legal responsibility?
Apart from intellectual property issues, there are other untested legal questions, in particular issues around safety, regulation and liability. For example, who will be responsible if a faulty 3D printed product, like a high-heeled shoe, created from a pattern purchased online, causes an injury?
Designers and retailers have several legal and commercial options, such as:
- asking the Intellectual Property Office for guidance on the proper interpretation of intellectual property legislation regarding 3D printing and how it relates to fashion retail;
- lobbying for changes to the law if the existing legislation offers inadequate protection; and
- embracing the opportunity 3D printing creates by developing plans to protect and grow their brands and businesses. Perhaps with sales of patterns for matching accessories for products for home 3D printing, or printing in-store at the point of purchase, or expanding the availability of colour and size ranges in-store to meet customer demand.
As 3D printing progresses retailers will need to develop strategies to maximise the potential of this technology to grow sales, and address the risks of counterfeiting.
The retail industry should start thinking now as the market is likely to develop quickly before any legal changes that might offer enhanced protections are made.