Skip to main content

View more from News & Articles or Primerus Weekly

By: Andrew Nicholson, Esq.
Mullins Lawyers
Brisbane, Australia

Fans of the Road Runner may remember an episode in which Wile E Coyote is standing on top of a ledge watching an object approaching in a valley below at great speed. He pulls a pebble from a box labelled “ACME Dehydration boulder – just add water” along with an eyedropper. As the fast moving object comes closer he applies one drop of water to the pebble and lifts it above his head. Unfortunately for Wile E, the pebble expands to a boulder and, as he is unable to support the weight, it crushes him before he can drop it on the object below.

Just over twelve months ago, we commented on the potential of 3D printing technology being more broadly embraced and the need for rights holders and government to consider the need to expand the forms of protection available 3D Printing - an agglomeration of rights. We also suggested that it would be prudent for businesses (and in particular rights holders) to consider the potential for infringement of their intellectual property rights.

That technology is now old hat – as researchers are advancing 4D printed technology using 3D printers in conjunction with “smart materials” such as different types of plastics and fibres to create objects which react when they are removed from the printer and come into contact with external stimuli such as heat, shaking, use of magnets, changes in temperature or (as in Wile E’s case) the application of water. The 4th dimension time refers to the self-transformation over time.

The potential uses could include medical devices that can transform their shape inside the body, valves that open in warm water and close in cold water, jewelry that changes shape when you put it on, or furniture that can self-assemble or build itself.

Again, the technology has the potential to affect a wide range of rights and the ability of the technology to copy and modify products should cause the holders of intellectual property rights to consider the forms of protection that are available within the existing legal framework in order to maximize the protection available to them.

Of course, it is always interesting to consider how the law might apply to new technology. For example, it is possible to protect a shape as a trade mark. However, how will that be applied where the object may be sold in a particular form and not change shape until an external stimuli is present?

In the patent sphere, the Patents Act provides that patent and design rights can be infringed where various parts and assembly instructions (or a kit) are provided to a recipient enabling them to produce an infringing product.

Suppliers have been found liable for selling products comprised of a kit of component parts, such as sailboards sold in kit form that constituted the complete set of parts (Windsurfing International Inc v Petit1) or unassembled compost bins (Rotocrop International Ltd v. Genbourne Ltd2). Will that be the view taken in relation to 4D printed objects?

As it is still early days, it will be interesting to see how the technology develops and whether it will have genuine commercial application. It will also be interesting to see whether rights holders keep an eye towards the horizon to see whether they can react to the changes before they arrive, or whether they are crushed under the weight of reliance on forms of protection which may become outdated.

One thing is for sure – technological advances will continue (perhaps in a valley below) at almost Road Runner like pace.

Beep Beep!

For more information about Mullins Lawyers, please visit the International Society of Primerus Law Firms.