3D printing is quickly becoming the next great industrial revolution. What use to be made in bulk overseas can now be made on-demand domestically. As a disruptive technology, 3D printing is largely unregulated. To date US courts are struggling with how to even classify the digital files for 3D objects. Is a 3D printed gun a tangible object subject to trade regulations, or is the digital file something we can even regulate?
Mass Production Paradigm
All our current laws on intellectual property (IP) are related to mass producing items in a factory.
In a traditional manufacturing process, a 2 dimensional drawing is used to direct the production of a 3 dimensional object. The physical 2D drawing was something that could be controlled and secured within a work area. It was easier to tell if a competitor has illegally copied your 2D drawing and knocks off your design.
After production the objects are shipped around the world, where they follow complex logistical chains to eventually end up in the home.
This paradigm of mass production has guided intellectual property law for the last 300 years.
The Short Circuit
3D printing is a short circuit in the idea of intellectual property. The ability to control a 2D drawing has gone out the window with the growth of the internet. Now anyone can copy, send, or rip off a CAD drawing for a physical object.
Unscrupulous factories in China have no problem cranking out knockoffs, no matter the quality. If you read any online 3D printing forum you will see people asking about or complaining about knock-off 3D printers.
The very paradigm of mass production is threatened by 3D printing. Now anyone with a 3D printer can make just what they need for the home. Consumers have changed to Makers.
Under this new paradigm, you download a digital file and then 3D print it. The object is then ready for use in your home.
The only shipping involved in 3D printing is the distribution of filament. If you get a filament extruder your 3D printer can be self-sustaining with all the plastics that we use in our life.
New State of Matter
3D printable digital files have an interesting duality in the world. Under one set of conditions (online) they are a digital file, a collection of binary numbers. Under another set of conditions (3D printed) they are a physical, tangible object.
As 3D printing progress around the world, the government will want a way to reconcile the law to 3D printing. Here are my thoughts on some proposals that have come out of the many debates online.
Possible Regulatory Options
- Do nothing, let the internet and 3D printing monitor itself.
This may be the most pragmatic and libertarian option. The music industry learned the hard way that trying to regulate copyright music online was impossible. When the music industry cracked down on Napster, consumers simply rotated how they streamed/pirated music. The same would happen if large companies cracked down on file sharing sites. Already it is possible to find copies of the Liberator Pistol on torrent as well as dark and light net sites; All this despite the government taking it down from Defense Distributed.
The internet is notorious for finding things that are wrong, and then drawing public attention to address the problems. Creative Commons is already in place so 3D designers can express how they want their digital files to be shared. CC is treated as an internet guideline, though it may not be enforceable in court. If the Just3DPrint scandal is any indication, the 3D printing community can do a better job of regulating IP violations than any government branch.
Under current copyright laws, companies that feel wronged can issue DMCA take downs and remove files from web host. But once the files are out, they will never truly be taken out of the internet.
- Add 3D printing files as protected IP into current copyright law.
This is a stopgap to creating laws specifically for 3D printing. Civil laws have been expanded over the years to protect people of different races, abilities and sexual orientations, so the legal precedent is in place.
While the copyright for your 3D file may be implied when you design it, current law will protect the programing and file only. The physical object that is 3D printed may fall under art, but the utility clause of copyright negates many of the things we 3D print.
Under this provision 3D printing will fit into current copyright law without any major overhaul. This is more palatable than any other of the legal possibilities listed below.
- Create a 2d generation of Digital Millennial Copyright Act.
Like the current DMCA which protects large media companies, this version of DMCA for 3D printing would be reviled and hated by the public. Its main benefactors will be commercial companies like Airbus and Space X, which would want to protect their 3D metal printing processes and rocket engine designs.
Multi-million ventures who rely on 3D printing for the bulk of their production will want their IP protected from data leaks and competition. They will also not want the liability if their design is copied and accident or death happens.
DMCA for 3D printing is not going to be a realistic, popular or practical law for 3D printing. Given the amount of abuse of DMCA in Youtube alone DMCA may be used to harass popular 3D designers.
- Put ID tags in 3D printers and prints.
Just as inkjet printers are required to put a ID tag in every page they print, the government may require that all 3D printers add some sort of printer ID tag to every 3D print. This will make the objects traceable to the 3D printer who counterfeits an object. Given that the public hates government oversight, this provision will be ignored or circumvented. Given that 3D printers and designers can fix errors in digital files, there is nothing keeping us from jail breaking a printer or deleting the ID tag from the printer firmware.
- Have a blacklist of digital files.
It would be one thing if the government had a blacklist of 3D files. This list may apply to classified military hardware, but after that the government would be intruding into private enterprise if they blacklisted commercial designs. The other issue is that people just will rename illegal files to something innocuous.
There has been discussion of having every printer check the files they are to print against a blacklist. From a technical standpoint, the simple Adrino boards in most 3D printers don’t have the functionality to perform such a complex task.
Sending your print job to check against the blacklist also presents a massive invasion of privacy. What is to prevent the government from monitoring every benchy and fidget that I make? No one should know what I’m printing unless I post the pics or files publicly.
- Have a certification process for 3D printers and 3D prints.
A industry certification process may fall to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA already regulates aircraft production in the USA, with extensive regulation covering the quality of tooling and aircraft parts. As major aircraft firms produce more parts on 3D printers, the FAA may take a more active role in regulating 3D printed aircraft parts.
However this is unlikely to happen. The FAA is facing budget issues and congressional resistance to many changes. The FAA is also so bureaucratic that it would take decades to even start regulating industrial 3D printers.
International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9000 and other ISO standards would be the better standard for 3D printer regulation. ISO standard certifications would apply to industrial as well as desktop markets. ISO 9000 standards may help companies 3D print parts to a known quality, which can give the public a measure of assurance if they rely on something 3D printed.
It is clear that 3D printing is disrupting every part of manufacturing. Our current laws will have to be revised or scraped to include 3D printing.
DISCLAIMER: Consult a lawyer before following any new course of legal action with 3D printing. This article is a blog of opinions, not legal advice.
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