IP News: Not So Patently Obvious

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, innovators have been volunteering their creativity to come up with ingenious new ways of combatting the spread of the disease. And top of the list of potential tech-based solutions is 3D printing.

Long heralded as a cheaper, faster, and more accessible means of production, 3D printing offers a potential silver-bullet to the problem of manufacturing and distributing much needed medical equipment by allowing designs to be shared publicly and produced locally. After all, why wait for the health authorities to navigate the procurement process and supply chain of, say, a global clinical mask manufacturer, when Tod & Dan down the road can feed the same design into their printer and start handing out masks the same day. On the face of it, you’d think this was a no-brainer. The kind of brilliant ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ idea that makes you want to shake these people by the hand (and then wash them, obviously). Unfortunately, the entrepreneurial Tod & Dans of this world are just as likely to find themselves shaking hands with a lawyer as they are a throng of grateful germophobes.

At the time of writing, almost 4,500 people have added their name to an online list of people offering to help produce medical supplies. Meanwhile, businesses and even some university departments have also thrown their hats into the 3D printing ring. While every single one of these offers is nothing short of noble, the legal risks involved in this kind of ‘grey market’ production should be as worrying as the creeping virus itself.

Copying a patented design, even with permission, may still result in legal action if an iteration of that product is defective. Equally, the same goes for any open-source design that finds itself into the hands of end users. Your home printed medical equipment may have dodged the IP infringement bullets of big-pharma, but you’re no less at risk of litigation from the fiercely regulated world of healthcare if (heaven forbid) something goes wrong. Our professional advice: please print responsibly.