Freedom!!! (photo by Crises_Crs)

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.

Zachary Loney

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3 Responses to Defending 3-D Printing

  1. Katie Kuhn says:

    Great post, Zachary! There was a piece in Foreign Policy this week that I thought you might be interested in called “3D Printing and the Future of Warfare.” While you are absolutely correct that 3D printers do not currently have the capability to produce all the parts of a working firearm, the Foreign Policy piece discusses how 3D printers could be useful to military units engaged in remote parts of the world. Military officials offered thoughts on developing Google’s self-driving vehicles and 3D printers to keep units supplied, not just with guns but with things like communications gear. Notably, their projections for this tech were for some “20 years from now,” but I thought it was a worthwhile follow up to your post. It will be interesting to see how the give and take between military and civilian tech develops with regards to 3D printing and firearms.

  2. Brad Edmondson says:

    I just want to point out how amazing it is to be alive in the 2010s: earlier this year researchers in the EU 3D-printed a custom-designed jawbone out of titanium for an 83-year-old woman, attached it in lieu of much riskier, more invasive reconstructive surgery, and she was speaking and swallowing the next day.

    There are times when I feel like all technology improvement is incremental, but then something like this comes along and reminds me that enough incremental change can inflect our mundane present into a brand new set of possibilities. Welcome to the future, folks. It is awesome here.

  3. Joanna Collins says:

    My first introduction to 3-D printing was last year’s JETLaw Symposium on Copyright & Creativity, and I remember being blown away by how cool it was. I cannot wait for the day when these machines become household items.

    At the Symposium, Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Edward Lee discussed the potential tension between traditional notions of authorship and situations in which machines, rather than humans, do much of the creating of an object. For anyone interested in reading more about such legal issues associated with 3-D printing, I highly recommend Professor Lee’s Symposium article entitled “Digital Originality.”

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