4D printing: how to protect space-age technology

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4D printing adds a new dimension to the process: time. While 3D printing technologies allow users to build a 3D product, 4D technologies allow a 2D product to gradually change shape over time in response to an external stimulus or energy source. This technique is also known as active origami or shape morphing.

The technology already has practical applications: a sheet of plastic can turn into a cube when it comes in contact with water or a simple string that reveals a hidden message when added to water. Both were developed by Skylar Tibbits’ team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Self-Assembly Lab (link with videos of the technology in action).

Like many futuristic technologies, the prospects for real-world applications of 4D printing are immense, the most promising (in my opinion) being applications for space.

The organization of space cargo strongly impacts the cost of rocket launches and the use of 4D printed materials can increase the amount of cargo that can be transported. This will increase the viability of scientific projects such as the recent James Webb Space Telescope (which used origami techniques) or Elon Musk’s plans to colonize Mars, where space freight must be maximized.

Legal confusion

3D printing has created many legal discussions focusing on the scope of industrial design rights and its limits, in the same way that the introduction of peer-to-peer technologies has launched discussions in the creative, technology-intensive industries. copyright.

New technologies that democratize access to production tools or allow the free sharing of creative materials will certainly overlap with the principles of intellectual property.

Many, if not most, users of 3D printing technology do not violate intellectual property laws because they share designs or print products that are new designs in their own right or where such uses are not conflict with proprietary industrial design rights, including private uses. .

While conflicts between 3D printing and intellectual property rights have already hit the headlines (see, Just 3D Print vs. Stratasys/MakerbotPhiladelphia), the real impact has yet to be felt to a greater extent because 3D printing machines are not widely available.

This could change over time as more users gain access to 3D printing machines and start using other people’s schematics for commercial purposes.

As 4D printing technologies rely on 3D technologies, legal issues related to the scope of industrial property and its limits will remain.

From a legal point of view, the most innovative aspect of 4D printing concerns the evolution of the shape of its products because they are not static and change over time. In other words, the shape of the product may be different at any given time, depending on how it has been programmed to react to certain environmental stimuli.

Changing forms—shaping laws?

A ‘design’ is defined by Article 3(a) of the Community Design Regulation (CDR) as ‘the appearance of all or part of a product’.

This definition is very broad and although it specifies that the appearance results from its “lines, contours, colors, shape, texture and/or materials of the product itself and/or its ornamentation”, it does not follow not necessarily that 4D products are excluded. protection, although arguably the gradual change in shape of a product is not expressly mentioned.

The characteristics mentioned, mainly its material, cover enough different or changing shapes, which means that 4D printed products can be included in the current CDR definition of “design”.

Protection may thus be granted if the appearance does not derive solely from its technical function and if the substantive requirements are met.

A less promising conclusion can be drawn from Articles 36(1)(c) and 36(5) CDR, as the implementing regulations still require designs to be represented in a manner suitable for reproduction static, which includes paper reproductions and in particular paper registration certificates. This forces applicants to submit design requests that only use static shots and not animated simulations.

Currently, the European Union Intellectual Property Office allows the filing of Community designs in the most common JPEG format. It also allows OBJ, STL and X3D formats for dynamic 3D views of static images.

While 4D products can certainly be saved as a succession of still images, in order to circumvent the current limitations of the system, this is not ideal.
With the latest updates to the European Trademark Regulation and subsequent administrative instructions, the types of marks that can be registered have been expanded and new file formats are now allowed, including OBJ, STL and X3D for 3D marks. , but also MP4 for movement. , multimedia and holograms.

Future updates to the EU industrial design legislative framework should take into account the above-mentioned difficulties and allow the uploading of more file types, allowing applicants to protect changing forms of products. .

This will also be useful in other areas of design, such as dynamic and interactive graphical user interfaces which are also protected or reviewed as snapshots.

The EU Design Regulation and Directive should be updated to clarify the scope of industrial design rights protection and its relationship to 3D and 4D printing to support the use of these technologies without harm to designers.

This is a joint edition articleoriginally published in the World Intellectual Property Review (WIPR)

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