3-D Printing

I’m starting to get interested in the legal implications of 3-D printers.  As you may know, a 3-D printer can, in essence, build objects from drawings if you input the right raw materials.  The cost of these devices is falling and their precision is increasing.  Consider how this could pose problems for traditional IP and regulatory law:

1.  I need a replacement part for something.  Instead of buying one, I get my 3-D printer to make one.  If that part is patented, then I am guilty of patent infringement.  But what can the patent owner do about that?

2.  I want to make a 3-D model of a fabulous new building for my child.  The building is copyrighted by the architect.  I am guilty of copyright infringement, but what can the architect do about that?

3.  Patent and copyright owners could sue 3-D printer manufacturers for contributory infringement.  Since these devices have significant non-infringing uses, though, that challenge would probably fail under Sony and Grokster.

4.  Moving beyond IP law, any statute that restricts or prohibits the possession of an object is vulnerable.  Suppose we ban certain kinds of ammunition.  The 3-D printer can make me some at home.  Ditto for anything so long as it is small enough.  What can we do about that short of increasing the punishments for people for are found to possess the banned items?


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6 Responses

  1. Anon says:

    Michael Weinberg at Public Knowledge has a pretty thorough white paper going through the legal implications of 3D printing: http://publicknowledge.org/it-will-be-awesome-if-they-dont-screw-it-up.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    IIRC, you have to use the patented idea *to make money* in order to violate a patent. At the consumer end of things, if the wigistat in your thingamging breaks down, and you run off a copy to get it working again, YOU wouldn’t be violating the patent. Likewise making a toy for your child.

    The guy who gave you the design might be, though, if he charged for it.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    @ I don’t think it will necessarily be so easy to make things – you’ll need a software-based design. It may be that patent owners will make the design specs available commercially. So it might turn out to be easiest to make spare parts legally.

    @ In the US there is still fair use, so the model for your child could easily qualify. Again, though, you’d need the design, so there very well might be a commercially available alternative when it comes to famous buildings, say.

    @ Not only size but materials are important. At the moment, 3-D printing using metals seems not to be available in home-style printers, though that could of course change. Maybe in the future printers will be required to have a certain “signature” to make their products identifiable to the specific printer, in the way that typewriters are (at least in old cop shows), e.g. But while 3D printers enlarge the scope of the problem, it’s already here: think kitchen meth labs and all manner of other illicit drug, explosive, poison gas, factories. Home-made chemistry has been around a long time. Not only the possession, but the manufacture can be criminalized. What’s really new about that, legally?

  4. prometheefeu says:

    I know! Isn’t it wonderful?

  5. 952012 says:

    Welcome to the new digital information age. These old laws are not designed for this new world and don’t work here. We shouldn’t keep trying to hammer square peg laws into a round hole world.

    When the ability to copy information to near infinite and disseminate it to the world at nearly no cost (once the infrastructure is in place) and nearly instantaneously why should we block its dissemination?

    To protect the ones creating the ideas? For fear that if they are not protected they won’t produce anymore? I think we see people are more than willing to create products, literature, videos, entertainment, for free (see the explosive amount of user-contributed material to YouTube, the blogosphere, wikipedia).

  6. Brett Bellmore says:

    “What can we do about that short of increasing the punishments for people for are found to possess the banned items?”

    Repeal the laws?