Answering a Few Legal Questions About 3D Printing

3D printing technology is in a fledgling state, though it has already raised many ethical and moral dilemmas. What can you print with a 3D printer? Guns? Illicit drugs? Can you print anything? Also, who controls the designs for 3D printed content? Who should own those and distribute them?

These are all things that the law can answer, given time. Unfortunately, this makes answering questions about the future of 3D printing, intellectual property, and their intersection with the law difficult to hypothesize. What will the future of 3D printing laws will be, based on the current landscape?

A few brave souls have attempted to answer some of these questions. In a recent YouTube video on PBS Idea Channel, host Mike Rugnetta spoke with Michael Weinburg, General Counsel and head of litigation at Shapeways, a 3D printing company. During the interview, the two spoke about the various issues concerning 3D printing technology and implementation, especially as they intersect with intellectual property and laws.

3D Printing Community

Weinburg notes that the 3D printing community is currently comprised of the following groups of people:

  • The makers, who come up with ideas and like the challenge of design. They are engineering-oriented people.
  • Designers, who have had an awesome idea for a thing and want to use 3D printing technology as a means to create their vision.
  • Outside of these two large groups, there are also smaller cliques like educators (who aim to use 3D printing in the classroom as an engaging way to teach science, engineering, and math), and lawyers, who are concerned with the future of 3D printing legislation and regulation.

Copyright Distinction: Functional vs. Non-Functional

Even a doorknob can be protected

The current state of 3D printing laws revolves around copyright violations and patent infringements. When determining copyright violations for 3D printed objects, the first question one must ask is: is this object functional or non-functional?

A functional object serves a purpose (like a door knob or a part of your car’s engine), while a non-functional object might be a piece of art. Functional objects are categorically not subject to copyright laws, while non-functional objects can be copyrighted. That said, any object (even a functional object) can be protected by a patent.

Embrace 3D Printing!

In defense of embracing 3D printing technology on a widespread scale, Weinburg explains the process that the music industry used to approach MP3s when they first hit the market. This faulty strategy, he explains, caused the music industry to alienate many of their customers and eventually resulted in giving in to their demands: first, they sued all of their customers for downloading MP3s, then they put on digital locks to their music (which were easily broken), and then they finally embraced MP3 technology and sought to serve the market that obviously exists for digital music.

This is important for the future of 3D printing design and law: people will find a way around restrictions to their use of this new tech, so it should be designed from the start to be easily used by a wide variety of users. Serve the market!

The Importance of Legislation

When a case is brought before a judge that is related to 3D printing, the first question they will ask is: what is the norm in the community? Determining the norm in a community is the first way that a judge will determine whether or not the defendant in a case has done something wrong—this is especially true in a young community like the 3D printing community.

Therefore, as Weinburg warns, the 3D printing community has the onus to operate thoughtfully so that the first piece of landmark legislation passed on 3D printing technology will coincide with the good values of the community, instead of the bad. This first piece of legislation will weigh heavily on any future legislation, so it is critically important to start things off on the right foot.

Here is some further reading about 3D printing, intellectual property, and their intersection with the law: