Three Questions About 3D Printing

By William Vogeler, Esq. on January 05, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Legal issues are being created every time a new 3D object is printed.

Like issues with copying movies in the past and cloning living things in the future, the challenge for lawyers is keeping up with technology and the applicable law.

So far, 3D printing is ahead of the law, as the technology has been used to create rocket engines, guns, human tissue and even a bionic ear. We're talking potential problems that cross virtually every border from international to federal to state laws. So many issues arise in the 3D process, but let's consider three questions:

1. What Is It?

To address the legal issues, it is helpful to understand the 3D printing process. Basically, a 3D printer lays down successive layers of materials to create three-dimensional objects. Instead of ink, the 3D printer uses plastic or other malleable material. The printer dispenses the material by layers, one on top of the other, onto a platform to build objects.

The 3D printer works through a computer, often connected to the internet to download files to be printed. The computer user inputs the design information through a "computer-aided design" (CAD) file, and the information is transmitted to the 3D printer.

2. Whose Is It?

Intellectual property issues surround the 3D object, whether it is patent of the design, copyright of the information, or trademark of the appearance. According to some legal scholars, the very process invokes "digital patent infringement."

"As a technological matter, the line between digital and tangible has eroded to the point where one could view these files as infringement," Professors Thomas Holbrook and Lucas Osborn say. "As a legal and policy matter, however, such expansion of patent infringement liability could have significant chilling effects on other actors and incentives, giving us pause in extending liability in this context."

While fair use of non-commercial 3D printing may address some copying problems, other uses transcend intellectual property laws.

3. How Is It Used?

What if a 3D body part infects some patient? What if a 3D rocket engine part fails and injures somebody? What if some criminal prints a plastic 3D gun, passes through a metal detector and shoots an airline pilot?

"3D printing is a brand new technology, and caselaw is still evolving," said David L. Ferrera, who leads a product liability and toxic tort litigation practice group for his firm.

So what if the CAD software engineer, the 3D object designer, the 3D printer manufacturer, the 3D ink maker, the 3D printer user, the 3D object retailer and the 3D object user are only connected by the internet in different countries?

Exactly; it's a liability nightmare. The answers are not easy, and it is especially challenging because the law is struggling to keep up with the technology.

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