Recently. 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.