CAD Files and European Design Law

Author:Viola Elam

Three-dimensional printing ("3DP") is an additive manufacturing technology that starts with a virtual 3D model of the object to be printed, the so-called Computer-Aided-Design ("CAD") file. This file, when sent to the printer, gives instructions to the device on how to build the object layer-by-layer. This paper explores whether design protection is available under the current European regulatory ... (see full summary)

Viola Elam
CAD Files and European Design Law
by Viola Elam*
© 2016 Viola Elam
Everybody may disseminate this ar ticle by electronic m eans and make it available for downloa d under the terms and
conditions of the Digital P eer Publishing Licence (DPPL). A copy of the license text may be obtain ed at http://nbn-resolving.
Recommended citation: Vi ola Elam, CAD Files and European Design Law, 7 (2016) JIPITEC 146 pa ra 1.
Keywords: Community design; CAD file; 3D printing; EUIPO; disclosure; informed user; spare parts; scope and
criteria of protection; infringement
ital representations of designs. The enquiry goes on
to illustrate the implications that the making of a CAD
file available online might have. It suggests that the
act of uploading a CAD file onto a 3D printing plat-
form may be tantamount to a disclosure for the pur-
poses of triggering unregistered design protection,
and for appraising the state of the prior art. It also ar-
gues that, when measuring the individual character
requirement, the notion of “informed user” and “the
designer’s degree of freedom” may need to be recon-
sidered in the future. The following part touches on
the exceptions to design protection, with a special fo-
cus on the repairs clause set forth in Article 110 CDR.
The concluding part explores different measures that
may be implemented to prohibit the unauthorised
creation and sharing of CAD files embedding design-
protected products.
Abstract: Three-dimensional printing (“3DP”)
is an additive manufacturing technology that starts
with a virtual 3D model of the object to be printed, the
so-called Computer-Aided-Design (“CAD”) file. This
file, when sent to the printer, gives instructions to the
device on how to build the object layer-by-layer. This
paper explores whether design protection is available
under the current European regulatory framework
for designs that are computer-created by means of
CAD software, and, if so, under what circumstances.
The key point is whether the appearance of a product,
embedded in a CAD file, could be regarded as a pro-
tectable element under existing legislation. To this
end, it begins with an inquiry into the concepts of “de-
sign” and “product”, set forth in Article 3 of the Com-
munity Design Regulation No. 6/2002 (“CDR”). Then,
it considers the EUIPO’s practice of accepting 3D dig-
A. What is three-dimensional
printing and what is a CAD file?
The term “three-dimensional printing” (“3DP”)
can be considered as an umbrella term that stands
for a set of related technologies building physical
objects by the consecutive addition of liquids,
sheet or powdered materials in ultra-thin layers.
Hence, in contrast with traditional “subtractive
manufacturing” technologies, which mostly rely
on the removal of material (e.g. cutting, drilling
and milling), 3DP is an “additive manufacturing”
technology. The peculiarity about 3DP is that every
physical object is created directly from a digital
le, the so-called Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
le. The latter is a virtual 3D model that serves to
send information to the printer on how to build the
2 A CAD le can be obtained in different ways. First,
it can be created from scratch, by using modelling
software (“CAD software”). A number of open-source
software tools are freely available online. They enable
individuals with no prior experience in 3D modelling
to create their own designs, with some programs
providing pre-rendered shapes1. Furthermore, many
websites offer tutorials on modelling best practices
to assist users who are not design professionals2.
Second, an existing object could be turned quickly
into a virtual 3D model by using a 3D scanner. The
latter is a device that collects a huge amount of
data from a real-world object, by means of lasers
1 E.g. FreeCAD, Sketchup or ThinkerCad.
2 For example, Sculpteo provides a tutorial for users of the
Sketchup” 3D modelling software, available at: <http://
CAD Files and European Design Law
or x-rays. Hence, it reproduces a high-resolution
and accurate digital model of the scanned object
(“3D visualization”). Third, photogrammetry is a
valid alternative to 3D scanning. It is a photography
technique that uses software tools for stitching a
series of 2D photographs – taken from different
angles – together into a 3D model.
4 A CAD le can be saved in different formats, such as
the .stl format (“STereoLithography”) or the .amf
format (“Additive Manufacturing Format”). The .stl
format merely describes the surface geometry of a
three-dimensional object as a set of triangular faces,
whereas the .amf format is an XML-based format
inclusive of information about the volumetric
structure of the interior, composition, colour,
geometry and material.
At a second stage, CAD les need to be processed,
in order to become printable. Hence, a (CAD or
scanned) 3D model has to be segmented into a
number of layers by specialized software, so-called
“Computer-Aided Manufacturing” software or
“slicer”. The latter generates a G-code for each layer,
which contains commands to tell the printer how to
manufacture the object3. The slicing programs are
usually included with the printer or available online
for download4.
It emerges from the above considerations that three
consecutive steps have to be followed in an ordinary
3DP process: the creation of a virtual 3D model; the
deconstruction of the 3D model into a series of
slices (“slicing”), which are sent to the 3D printer
through a computer code; the nal print, consisting
in a layer-by-layer deposition of suitable materials.
3DP has gained a wider distribution among the
general public in recent years. The launch of Open
Source Hardware initiatives, such as the “Replicating
Rapid Prototyping” (“RepRap”) project5, together
with the expiration of a number of key patents on 3D
printing technologies, have contributed to a steady
improvement in the quality of personal 3D printers
and to a considerable reduction in hardware costs6.
The technology has, therefore, crossed over into
3 The CAD and CAM functions could also be integrated into a
single CAD/CAM program.
4 E.g. Slic3r, Cura and Skeinforge.
5 This project was launched by a research team at the
University of Bath. The idea was to create an open source
3D printer capable of reproducing its own spare parts. The
specications of the hardware (e.g. CAD les, mechanical
drawings, diagrams, etc.) were made freely available online
for anyone to use, modify and update. The RepRap project
could be realised because key patents, covering the fused
deposition modelling technique, had expired.
6 Before 2009 the cheapest personal 3D printer on the market
was offered for around €15.000. Today, the price for a
personal 3D printer ranges from €500 to € 2000.
the consumer sphere, with over 100,000 desktop 3D
printers having been sold so far7.
Furthermore, online platforms dedicated to the
dissemination of CAD les (“digital-design-le-
sharing”) have grown in popularity. These platforms
have contributed to the creation of a communication
infrastructure that is a powerful tool for co-creation.
They enable individuals to connect to a vast and
distributed network, where they can upload,
download, edit, remix, share or indeed sell a CAD
le, from which a 3D printed product will emerge.
Some recent studies, conducted by Rayna et
al.8, Moilanen et al.9, and Mendis et al.10, provide
examples of the diversity of existing 3DP platforms.
The latter include platforms, such as Thingiverse,
where users license their CAD les – rather than
selling them – under Creative Commons licences
(CC) or General Public Licence (GPL). By using CC
licences, the CAD le’s proprietor can withhold
certain rights (e.g. the right of attribution and the
right to make derivative works), and impose that
derivatives should be licensed under the same terms
as the licence of the original CAD le (the “Share
Alike” clause). Furthermore, the “Non Commercial
Use” clause restricts the possibility for the licensee
to use the CAD le for commercial purposes.
Other platforms, such as Cuboyo, offer paid
downloads to users’ CAD les (i.e. the 30% of the sale
price goes to the website, whereas the remaining
70% goes to the seller)
. Moreover, online platforms,
such as Shapeways and Sculpteo, offer printing and
delivery services on demand. Taking as an example
the architecture of Sculpteo, the 3DP process takes
place in the following way: individual users upload
their CAD les onto Sculpteo website; Sculpteo
automatically repairs any defect and optimizes the
digital blueprint, with its own 3D tools; then, it prints
the object and delivers it to costumers in nished
form, charging a price for its activities.
11 Whether personal 3DP will reach its full potential in
7 Mendis, Secchi, report commissioned by the UK Intellectual
Property Ofce, A Legal and Empirical Study of 3D Printing
Online Platforms and an Analysis of User Behaviour (March
2015), p. 2.
8 Ranya, Striukova, Darlington, Open Innovation, Co-Creation
and Mass Customisation: What Role for 3D Printing Platfroms?,
T. D. Brunoe et al. (eds.), Proceedings of the 7th World
Conference on Mass Customization, Personalization, and
Co-Creation (MCPC 2014), Aalborg, Springer (2014).
9 Moilanen, Daly, Lobato, Allen, Cultures of Sharing in 3D
Printing: What Can we Learn From the Licence Choices of
Thingiverse Users?, Journal of Peer Production (6), Disruption
and the Law (2015), available at: <
10 Supra note 7.
11 Moilanen et al. (2015), supra note 9, p. 4.

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