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.

–Matt Ginther

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2 Responses to The Use and Misuse of 3D Printers

  1. Zachary Loney says:

    In my opinion the age of 3D printing could very likely be the push needed for a “fair use” defense in patents. Several of the criteria used in copyright, such as non-commercial use, could easily apply in this situation. As Matt mentioned, this may be a case where some infringement should be tolerated for the great good. Medical implants would offer an interesting test case on whether the patent holder or the patient’s welfare is more important.

    Regulation of P2P networks is sure to fail as Ryan mentioned. Perhaps a type of DCM or “always-on” system would be more appropriate. Requiring that the machine communicate with a central network could prevent certain prohibited acts. This is the same concept that Microsoft’s XBox envisioned to stop the pirating of games. Also, an app-store type repository would add a layer of oversight, but run the risks of segregating content into walled gardens.

    Also, while the worries about 3D-printed weapons are not minor, they represent a bogeyman that I feel unfairly overshadows the possible good of the technology. Unregistered weapons are easily available today to most people and the internet has dozens of DIY articles on building single shot weapons from homemade items like pipe and tubing. The greatest threat I see from these prototypes lies with the fact that our current security measures (e.g., metal detectors) would be largely useless. For the moment it is a good thing that the materials available to build the devices require extra bulk to compensate for the weakness of the material. Regulations monitoring the materials needed to create more robust prototypes (liquid metal and high grade plastics) could go a long way in reducing the risk of better quality weapons.

  2. Ryan says:

    It seems to me that any regulation of 3D printing will be hard to enforce–even harder than normal enforcement of IP rights. Even a convicted felon or someone with a mental illness would be able to print a 3D gun that can fire one or two shots without the government knowing, and that might be all the person wants to fire. Similarly, someone could print a GI Joe action figure that infringes on a company’s copyright without any way that the company could know. It could limit Peer-to-peer sharing of certain CAD files, but those files will always be available on overseas sites or on sites that the government hasn’t found yet.