Legal threats to 3D printing

“Legal issues” threaten rise of 3D printing

News: the 3D printing revolution could be hampered by copyright claims and legal challenges as the emerging technology matures, an expert has warned.

“We’re getting into real legal issues,” said technology journalist Adrian Mars. “We’ve got all sorts of legal challenges this is going to throw up.” Top image: figurine produced by 3D photo booth

Speaking about 3D printing at It's Nice That's In Progress conference on Friday, Mars identified copyright violations and insurance claims as two potential areas that need to be considered urgently.

“What if you 3D print a car and somebody and it causes an accident due to a design fault or a computer design fault?” said Mars. “Thousands of people may have contributed bits of that car. “Who regulates it? How do the insurance companies deal with it? Are you responsible because you put it together and printed it? It needs to be debated and thought about. It’s going to be the same for bikes and aircraft.”

Mars, who writes and consults on 3D printing, added: “Just like with digital sampling [in music], how much of somebody else’s object can you steal? If it’s just a bit of surface texture, is that alright?”

3D printing could follow the music industry by using legal action and digital rights management (DRM) software to prevent online filesharing, Mars warned.

In October this year, the first US patent was granted for a technology to prevent 3D printers producing unauthorised copies of protected files. The patent, granted to Intellectual Ventures of Bellevue, Washington, is for a type of DRM software that checks whether the operator is authorized to print a file.

“You could have a printer that refuses to print, just like a music player refuses to play, if the digital rights don’t say that you’ve paid for it,” Mars said.

Protecting original designs from unauthorised copying will increasingly become an issue, Mars predicted. “Will we see 3D printing watermarks? Just like we have watermarks on digital photos will we find ways of hiding patent information inside the model, or subtly in dimples on the outside?”

Last year the first legal “take-down” request was issued against a 3D file uploaded to Thingiverse, a filesharing site set up by 3D printer brand Makerbot.

Ulrich Schwanitz, a designer based in the Netherlands, created a file to print a 3D version of a Penrose Triangle, a graphic optical illusion. Another 3D modeller, Artur Tchoukanov, worked out how the object had been created and uploaded his file to Thingiverse. Schwanitz then issued a take-down request under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), claiming his intellectual property had been violated.

Schwanitz later rescinded his take-down request but industry observers predicted that the incident marked the start of a legal minefield for the 3D printing industry. “3D printing's first copyright complaint goes away, but things are just getting started,” wrote Cory Doctorow in Boing Boing at the time.

"We have seen some sad signs of maturing in this market," Mars concluded. See more stories about 3D printing.