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Talk of 3D printers seems to be everywhere these days–including the Spring 2013 SkyMall Catalog I was skimming on a recent flight to Nashville. At $1299, SkyMall’s Cube 3d Printer sounds tempting, but functional 3D printing technology is not yet available for the typical consumer. However, experienced developers, programmers, and machinists are already using this technology in ways that have some lawmakers concerned. Law student Cody Wilson’s video demonstration of a gun that he designed and printed on a 3D printer has sparked concern among security experts and gun control advocates. The gun’s CAD plans were downloaded more than 100,000 times before the file was removed from the Internet at the request of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Although 3D-printed guns provide a sensational example of the legal questions arising from the use of 3D printers, even more mundane uses of the technology will present unique legal issues.
Some commentators have suggested that one important method for regulating the use of 3D printers will be to more strictly enforce IP-related regulation. Legislation like the PROTECT IP Act may be used to control the sharing of CAD files, like that used to print Wilson’s gun or other copyrighted materials or patented devices. By limiting p2p file sharing, which today is primarily used for downloading music and videos illegally, the U.S. government could potentially limit file sharing that represents a security threat or an intellectual property infringement.
Of course, as 3D printing technology matures, we must be concerned about legislation that may unduly hamper its growth. In copyright, while it’s likely that record labels would have much stronger earnings today, and perhaps even profits, if they had not been late to the digital-download game. However, if the RIAA had managed to place a stranglehold on Internet technologies in the name of preventing copyright infringement, it likely would not be the economic and social force that it has become today. 3D printing may revolutionize the world economy again, and perhaps it is in the public interest to allow a certain level of harm to intellectual property owners in the name of letting the technology develop a widespread use.
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