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The impact of 3D printing on the fashion industry

While the technology industry and the fashion industry may seem like unlikely bedfellows, technological advances have been behind the evolution of the manufacturing of fashion items over the years, whether by the creation of industrial, power-operated sewing machines which enabled mass production of pieces, or by the development of laser cutters to create original and intricate designs.

February 2015

We are now seeing a move towards new technology being reflected in the designs themselves as well as in the manufacturing process, in particular with the use of 3D printing technology to develop cutting-edge creations. In the past two years, these 3D printed products have been attracting a lot of attention. Iris Van Herpen unveiled her 3D printed designs at Paris Fashion Week in 2013, and a few months later Dita Von Teese made headlines by appearing in a 3D printed dress designed by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitoni. There is a fashion house, Continuum Fashion, which only produces 3D printed designs, including 3D printed bikinis and shoes, Kimberly Ovitz has created an entire range of 3D printed jewellery and Lady Gaga has been seen out and about in some custom 3D printed eyewear. So why has 3D printing become so popular in fashion circles?

One of the reasons is that there are major benefits to using 3D printing technology for designers. The CAD software makes pattern designing and prototyping easier, there are shorter lead times for producing items, less waste of raw materials and it enables smaller designers to produce items without an expensive initial layout buying the technology, by using 3D production companies such as Shapeways.

beaded necklaceBrand owners and designers do, however, need to be aware of potential threats connected with 3D printing technology. There are concerns that 3D printing technology will facilitate the production of counterfeit goods. While we are a long way off from being able to 3D print fabric, in its current form, 3D printing technology allows items such as jewellery, eyewear or belt buckles, which carry distinctive designs and trade marks, to be copied quickly, cheaply and easily. It will also make it much more difficult to tell the difference between the real thing and the counterfeit as counterfeiters will have the ability to 3D scan an item and product an identical replica. Currently the ability to mass-produce 3D products is limited, but as the technology develops, this is something that brand owners need to be aware of.

Peer to Peer file sharing could also cause a major problem with people downloading CAD files with no guarantee of quality. The production of low quality goods which are associated with a brand or designer can damage or dilute the brand and cause a threat from ordinary consumers (see below).

Can intellectual property rights provide some protection?

Design rights

In some cases, fashion items will be protected by design rights. Where an object is protected by these rights, the rights will be infringed where an unauthorised third party makes a copy. Design rights will often be the most useful form of intellectual property rights (IPRs) for the purposes of challenging 3D printing of fashion items.

Commercial reproduction using 3D printers could well amount to design right infringement. Intention and knowledge that actions amount to infringement are irrelevant. However, and importantly, there will be no infringement where an act is done privately and for purposes which are not commercial. This means that, if an object is copied by an individual in his home for his own personal use, there will be no infringement. The position will be different if the private individual then sells the items he has printed, which would constitute infringement.

Trade marks

Trade mark law provides protection against a trade mark being affixed to a copy of a product as long as it is used "in the course of trade". So if a logo were 3D printed and affixed to a knock-off handbag and then sold, it would constitute trade mark infringement but there is no protection for non-commercial reproduction. In other words, an individual creating a product for his own personal use would not be infringing.

Another issue is that enforcement strategies today often rely on customs officials picking up counterfeit goods as they are transported across borders. 3D printing means that counterfeit goods can be produced for a low cost in the country that they will be sold in, thereby circumventing customs protection.


copyright logoA fashion item may be protected by copyright if it is considered to be an artistic work (this discounts many manufactured articles but specifically protects "sculptures" and "works of artistic craftsmanship"). Artistic craftsmanship has a high threshold for qualification and it may prove difficult to try and assert that a fashion item is protected as such, especially one created for retail. Where a fashion item does qualify for protection, copying a protected work and providing copies to the public are acts restricted to the copyright owner. Where a third party does either of these things without a licence and a defence, this will amount to infringement. Knowledge of infringement and intention are irrelevant for acts of primary infringement.

The government has recently introduced a limited private copying exception into English law which will apply to people who already own a lawful copy of a protected work and will allow that person to copy that work for their personal use. So, if you bought a piece of handcrafted jewellery protected as an artistic work by copyright, you would be able to reproduce this for your own benefit. However, you would not be able to print a copy for someone else without infringing copyright.

The digital CAD file for a fashion work may be protected as a literary work and, therefore, direct copying (via file sharing sites) would constitute copyright infringement. However, copyright will not protect any item made using that file if it is not an artistic work.

While there may be some recourse using IPRs for fashion designers against commercial reproduction using 3D printers, it is clear from the above that enforcement of rights against consumers printing goods for use in their own home would be practically impossible. This means that anyone could effectively become a small scale counterfeiter – and while they may not be selling the goods, it will affect whether consumers are willing to pay for the real deal when they can produce an exact replica at home.

open bookWhat next?

The UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) has recently carried out a study into the IP implications of 3D printing. It concluded that there is currently no need to implement specific legislation to deal with this new technology as 3D printing via online platforms is not yet a "mass phenomenon". This conclusion is somewhat disappointing since one would have hoped that some recommendations would have been made regarding changing the current legislation in relation to private copies not being an infringement of IPRs.

There is likely to be further lobbying on this in the context of the Working Group which the UKIPO is currently setting up to consider the various IPRs which may need to be tackled in relation to 3D printing in future. One interesting point to come out of the UKIPO study was that files with the label "fashion" attract a higher number of views and downloads than others, indicating that the fashion industry will need to act sooner rather than later.

One of the most effective ways to limit piracy is to ensure the public has access to a wide variety of good value licensed products. One possible option may, therefore, be for luxury brands to provide their own good-quality licensed CAD files to consumers to allow authorised production of their designs for a price. Creating a new revenue stream in this way could help brand owners monetise their rights, keep some control over the quality of goods and legally give consumers the benefit and convenience of the latest technological advances.

If you have any questions on this article please contact us.

3D printer
Catherine Ferrity

Catherine examines the opportunities and risks which advances in 3D printing technology present to the fashion industry.

"There are concerns that 3D printing technology will facilitate production of counterfeit goods ... One way to limit piracy is to ensure the public has access to a wide variety of good value licensed products."