For the London Free Press – March 25, 2013 – read this at lfpress.com
3-D printing is moving from the realm of engineers and architects into the hands of hobbyists. It’s only a matter of time before we have 3-D printers at home, or have access to one the same way we now get photographs printed.
Some challenging legal issues will come along with this.
Unlike traditional manufacturing that takes material and reduces it into a useful shape, 3-D printing builds objects by stacking thin layers of a particular building material. That material can be plastic, metal or even food.
3-D printing has been used to create architectural models, prototypes, machine parts, art, bicycles, guns, children’s toys and shoes. 3-D printers can even print devices with moving parts, such as gears.
The possibilities seem endless. When a part on something breaks, for example, either you or a repair technician might be able to simply print a new part.
3-D printing technology has been around since the mid-1980s. As with many new technologies, it started off being prohibitively expensive. 3-D printers are now becoming increasingly available in the consumer market at steadily decreasing prices. An example is the Replicator2X printer by Makerbot. More detail is on the makerbot.com website, and their thingiverse.com site that has examples of printed objects.
The office supply chain Staples recently announced it will provide 3-D printing services at its stores in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The widespread availability of 3-D printing will result in new and more creative ways of utilizing the technology.
Scanning technology allows exact replicas of existing objects to be copied. Because of that, intellectual property law will likely be one of the main battlegrounds as 3-D printing continues to develop. Making copies of existing objects can lead to violations of patents, copyright, registered industrial designs and trademarks.
Copying objects has always had those issues, but the widespread ability to print objects brings them to the forefront — much like the widespread ability to copy photographs, music and movies has done since the dawn of digital and the internet. It also brings those issues to the average person, not just to manufacturers, much like the ability to copy photographs, music and movies has done.
Criminal laws may come into play, such as a possibly increased ability to make counterfeit goods. Weapons may also be created by simply obtaining a design specification for a particular weapon and uploading it into the printer. These kinds of uses will no doubt lead to suggestions that there should be laws regulating what can be printed.
3-D printing will inevitably lead to legal actions over responsibility for damages or injury caused by failed printed parts. For example, if sports equipment or building materials created by a 3-D printer contain defects that result in injury, is the person who printed it responsible, or the person who designed it?
3-D printers will be a disruptive technology, and as with any disruptive technology, the law will have to react to the issues that come with it.