3d printer-smallRecently. EFA board member Angela Daly presented to Deakin Law School on the issue of ‘legal and regulatory issues for 3D printing’.

After a brief description of how 3D printers work as well as the 3D printer ecosystem of manufacturers, user and creator initiatives like RepRap and online design repositories, she then looked at a couple of issues that 3D printing poses for law and regulation.

Firstly, 3D printing implicates intellectual property, whether copyright over 3D printed designs, 3D printers creating unauthorised versions of patented objects, or trade marks appearing on 3D printed items. Secondly, she pointed to 3D printers being used to print ‘undesirable’ objects such as Defense Distributed’s famous gun.

Due to the creative destruction that new technologies such as 3D printing may wreak on ‘traditional’ manufacturing industry, and despite its potential economic, environmental and social benefits, we are likely to see pushback and lobbying from incumbent manufacturers and their masters to strengthen intellectual property law and enforcement in the same way as happened for digitised content.

As with digitised content though, attempts to regulate users’ behaviour, either by focussing on ‘gatekeepers’ such as 3D printer manufacturers or on online design repositories such as Thingiverse are doomed to fail.

Firstly, people can download plans from sites like the RepRap project and make their own 3D printers ‘off the radar’. Secondly, despite a huge amount of law and enforcement around intellectual property rights and digitised content, users can still easily get hold of pirated content on torrents and other sources to avoid detection and the fact that governments can only effectively control what happens within their own borders.

Although introducing technical protection measures to permit only ‘approved’ files to be printed on 3D printers may mitigate the liability of 3D printer manufacturers and intermediaries, these measures can easily be circumvented so are not a form of effective enforcement of intellectual property rights.

In the midst of moral panic over 3D printed guns, Angela cautioned that we should not lose sight of the opportunities that the increasing affordability of 3D printing may bring by democratising the means of production into the hands of the many rather than large, centralised, often offshore industry.

If intellectual property law can be kept in check, 3D printing may bring about a new abundance of information to add to that created by digitised content, but this time regarding physical objects. Given the fact that it is impossible for the state apparatus to control fully this technology, we may have to live with the disadvantage of this decentralisation, namely the means to make socially undesirable objects. However, we must not let this on the one hand lead to even more useless intellectual property laws that cannot be enforced anyway, and on the other to stopping the beneficial uses of 3D printing.

See the slides from Angela’s presentation.


  1. In every great invention, there is always a downside to it. People will always find ways to use inventions that are intended for good to be used in bad things. It cannot be helped because it is still all for the money or profits that some people have become so engrossed about.

    Comment by Bryce Gaddis on 15 August 2013 at 18:26
  2. The one thing to keep in mind here is, regardless what laws you have in place, people can (and do), at present still copy and replicate IP products using moulding techniques and other manufacturing methods. So all that 3D priting is doing is offering a different manufacturing method to something they can already do.

    Now take the 3d gun's as well.. they may be useful for a shot or 2 but usually blow up. People will make guns regardless, you can make one out of simple parts bought from a hardware store.

    But until they can make plastic bullets with plastic castings and plastic low order explosives (gun powder) they are going to be tracable through whatever metal detector you put them through.

    Basically there will be a change in our people do things with 3d printers and it will need an entire shift for retail because no longer they can charge $99 for a part they mass produced in china for $2 as people will create it themselves. If they patient that or whatever for the purpose to make stupid profits good luck to them, it wont stop people from stopping themselves getting ripped off.

    3d printing pro's far outweigh the con's and with all new technology there is always going to be people who will use it for malicious purposes but the majority will embrace it for the innovative technology it is to allow everyone to be more creative, not just people who have access to $100,000 machinery.

    Comment by Troy Dawson on 22 August 2013 at 16:00