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3-D printing is quickly becoming a reality for the everyday person – or at least a select sub-set of hobbyists out there. Companies like MakerBot and DeezMaker have both moved beyond the e-commerce arena and opened brick and mortar retail stores in Manhattan and Los Angeles respectively. The goal being not only to sell 3-D printers, but also to educate the public on their importance. Unfortunately, intellectual property issues and media sensationalism are threatening to dampen this movement’s coming out party.
So how does it work? The printer uses computer created designs to create the object through a technique called “additive manufacturing”. This process builds the model layer-by-layer, slowly adding each on top of the other until the entire product is complete. This removes any need for cutting, melting, or other techniques. It is possible to print with a variety of materials; however, the cheapest and most widely used by hobbyists is plastic. The use of high-grade thermoplastics and metals is expensive and primarily limited to industrial use.
Corporate engineering firms have had the technology for some time now, using it to create prototypes and devices such as landing gear for airplanes and medical implants. Some researchers have even had success in printing living tissue. On the hobbyist front, the goals are much closer to home, printing custom made chocolate bars or a few extra hotels for those family night Monopoly moguls. The possibilities have exploded – from Dungeons & Dragons-esque figurines to pick guards for guitars – as hobbyists race to share their newest designs on sites like Makerbot’s Thingiverse or the more market-centric Shapeways and Sculpteo.
This all seems like fun and games until the object being printed comes with legal strings attached. Take for instance this stunning rendition of an Imperial class star destroyer, uploaded by the aptly named “MacGuyver” who likely has no relationship to Lucas Arts. Interestingly enough, while the uploader is likely infringing on the Star Wars copyright, Thingiverse itself could likely find protection within the DMCA safe harbor.
Different issues arise when patent law covers the printed object. In that case, the 3-D printing scene appears in real trouble since the sites cannot appeal to any safe harbor and the uploader lacks a fair use defense. The end user, unfortunately, faces bleak prospects, as there are no exemptions for non-commercial patent infringement or ignorance of the holder’s patent rights. The question is whether patent holders can or will opt to follow the copyright tactic of suing individuals for infringement.
The website, however, only hosts the uploaded files and does not directly print the object. This likely will allow it to escape liability for direct infringement and limit its risks to either induced or contributory infringement. These indirect infringements actions typically require at least “willful blindness” by the distributors to the infringement caused by their actions. Faced with this high hurdle, it would make sense for the patent holder to employ a system of ad hoc “take down” notices much like the current copyright regime.
Lastly, the media itself may doom this burgeoning market through sensationalist storytelling, most recent are those indicating that 3-D printed weapons are only a button click away. Earlier this year a gun enthusiast and 3-D printing hobbyist printed a lower receiver piece for an AR-15 rifle. Inspired by his success a young law student launched himself on a mission to create an entirely printable firearm. After much media hubbub, the company leasing his 3-D printer revoked his license and repossessed the machine he was using.
Several items bear noting in these stories. The lower receiver that was printed was only one of many, many pieces needed to build a working firearm – many of which cannot be made of plastic (or even thermoplastic) due to ballistic limitations. As mentioned above, printing with other compounds such as metal is prohibitively expensive for at home printers. Additionally, the printed plastic receiver suffered from a number of quality issues that would only be compounded when attempting to print smaller, more intricate pieces. In short, the ability to print an action figures at home does not necessarily scale to such complex and highly specialized goods.
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