3D Printing: Can I print my own Spiderman action figure?

March 22nd, 2017

The growing democratization of 3D printers and its legal issues.

PASCAL LAUZONPartner, Lawyer and Trademark Agent | Montreal

Would you like to print your own Yoda, Spiderman or Hello Kitty figure in 3D? With the growing democratization of 3D printers, this option is becoming more and more affordable.

3D printing is a recent technological innovation making it possible to literally print objects from various materials, such as metal, plastic, ceramic, and chocolate, to name a few. From an industrial standpoint this technology can be used, for instance, to manufacture lighter and stronger airplane parts, or it might even reduce the number of tools to be brought on the International Space Station!

It can be expected that many factories in developing countries will eventually be replaced by 3D printing centres in developed countries, thereby cutting the costs of transportation and duties. Accordingly, it is conceivable that this will bring about a revolution that will have significant legal impacts in terms of taxation and labour law, for instance.

But for now, the main legal issue raised by 3D printing is the infringement of intellectual property rights, which is somewhat reminiscent of the debate surrounding music and film piracy. The arrival of the Internet greatly facilitated copyright infringement by making it possible to download copyrighted content with just one click. And now, because of 3D printing, the toy and action figure industry has become vulnerable to illegal downloading on the Internet.

We now have the ability to scan 3D objects to replicate them, or we can simply download the appropriate file. This means it is easy to print your favourite superhero action figure. Even if the purpose is not commercial, it is still an infringement of copyright with liability for damages if done without permission.

So, is the toy and action figure industry at risk? The music industry, rather than adapting quickly to the reality of the Internet, tried to fight it. For a long time it attempted to sustain its traditional business model while spending a fortune in legal fees to force the shutdown of illegal download sites. It took several years for the industry to adapt its business model to allow the public to listen to music legally and inexpensively on the Internet by downloading (e.g., iTunes) or streaming (e.g., Spotify).

The dark period the music industry went through in the 2000s seems to have served as a lesson for the toy industry. Rather than try to combat the counterfeiting of 3D objects head-on, corporations like Disney (the owner of the Star Wars and Marvel franchises) and Hasbro have been proactive and are already selling downloadable 3D models of their popular figures. Even though it is impossible in practical terms to completely eradicate counterfeiting, these players are betting that most people will prefer to legally purchase the digital files to print their favourite figures in 3D.

You can now buy a reasonable quality 3D printer for a few hundred dollars. The share of the consumer market owning this technology will naturally grow and, within a few years, 3D printers could become as common as webcams. If your business is contemplating using this technology for its development and your plans include buying or downloading 3D models, be aware that a good business strategy can be more efficient than a legal battle.

PASCAL LAUZON is a member of BCF’s Internet strategic team, which offers our clients strategic advice regarding their online presence. This is a continually evolving environment which calls for the expertise of a multidisciplinary team like that of BCF.