3-D Printers Open New Worlds, and New Legal Issues
MakerBot, the least expensive desktop 3-D printer.
CREDIT: Stuart Fox
Need a whistle right away? Or maybe a Rubik's cube? How about a new tiny plastic wheel for the dishwasher that you can't find at Home Depot?
For a growing number of people, the solution is simply to go online, download a blueprint of the object they desire and feed it into the 3-D printer sitting in their office. 3-D printers, from expensive industrial models to less sophisticated but cheaper models aimed at the consumer market, are quickly creating a future where people can fabricate just about anything they want.
But as 3-D printers that can spit out an almost unlimited universe of things - from cookie cutters, to yo-yos to screwdrivers - become ever more popular, their use is raising thorny legal questions.
The printers are uncharted territory, even for lawyers who focus on intellectual property issues, many of whom have not even heard of the machines.
"In many ways, today's 3-D printing technology resembles the personal computing community of the early 1990s," Michael Weinberg, a lawyer with Public Knowledge, a Washington-based public interest group, wrote in a report last November on the legal issues raised by 3-D printers. "The ability to reproduce physical objects in small workshops and at home is potentially just as revolutionary as the ability to summon information from any source onto a computer screen."
Just as the early days of personal computing inspired people to find new ways to develop and share information, the nascent 3-D era has attracted consumers using home printers in innovative ways without much worry about legal pitfalls. Jay Leno, for example, uses a 3-D printer to make hard-to-find parts for his vast collection of cars. His printer costs about $15,000.
Most 3-D printers work in the same general way: a blueprint of an object is fed into the machines that then build the item (which is usually plastic) layer by layer. Many designs can be downloaded from a variety of websites, such as Thingiverse.com, and tend to be prototypes or crude objects that have no copyright shield.
"They just want to make amazing things, and share their creations with each other and the world," Bre Pettis, one of the founders of Thingiverse.com and the 3-D printer company MakerBot. "We use and encourage open source licenses, so we have not seen or come across copyright issues."
But that kind of reproduction would likely unleash an aggressive legal campaign from manufacturers eager to prevent people from copying their products, arguing that unfettered printing would cut into sales, profits and ultimately lead to a loss of jobs.
Part of the challenge is that while copyright law protects creative works such as literature, music and movies functional objects are generally not protected by copyright, Weinberg told InnovationNewsDaily.
But as the technology improves, the price of printers drop and large tech firms (such as Hewlett-Packard) get into the 3-D printing business, the issue of copyright protection will undoubtedly become more pressing.
Weinberg warned of legal battles to come as 3-D printers become as common in homes as traditional printers and scanners.
"While thousands of new companies and industries will bloom in the wake of widespread 3-D printing, they may not exist when the large companies start calling for increased protections," Weinberg wrote in his report. "That is why it is critical for today's 3-D printing community, tucked away in garages, hacker spaces, and labs, to keep a vigilant eye on these policy debates as they grow."