Not so long ago 3D printing was being discussed alongside the internet, file sharing and digital currencies as a sign of the beginning of an era of post-control and post-scarcity.
There were fears that governments would struggle to regulate the activities of a new generation of “prosumers” (producer-consumers) and that economic and legal certainties would be challenged by an increase in the decentralised “free” supply of goods.
Last night, at the Information Law and Policy Centre, Dr Angela Daly and Dr Dinusha Mendis presented a more nuanced view of the prospects of 3D printing as a “disruptive” technology to mark the launch of Daly’s new book, Socio-Legal Aspects of the 3D Printing Revolution.
Daly, a research fellow at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Law, shared findings from postdoctoral research at the Swinburne University of Technology considering the legal aspects of 3D printing from the standpoint of the US, UK-EU and Australian legal systems.
Daly’s transnational lens enabled her to identify a number of divergent legal approaches to 3D printing in relation to exceptions to infringement, intermediary liability, copyright and DMCA takedowns.
She found that the legal implications of 3D printing were hard to generalise despite attempts at the harmonisation of international law. More often the legal status of 3D printing was both nationally and scenario specific. To this end, Daly noted that it would also be interesting to research how legal jurisdictions in emerging economies were tackling 3D printing.
Focussing particularly on the potential problems created for Intellectual Property law by 3D printing, Daly concluded that the technology was neither leading to “total chaos” nor “total control”.
She highlighted that 3D printing has not yet become a mainstream practice – despite entry level 3D printers selling for around £500, far fewer people own one than they do a smartphone or computer. Daly also emphasised that incumbent businesses and companies are incorporating 3D printing into their business models.
She stated, therefore, that although there was some chaos around the edges – such as the ability for people to print 3D guns – the overall picture was that from a socio-legal perspective the technology was not currently particularly ‘disruptive’.
Daly’s position was reinforced by a presentation from Dr Dinusha Mendis, Co-Director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy and Management (CIPPM) at Bournemouth University. Mendis has conducted research on the Intellectual Property and Copyright implications of 3D printing including work which was commissioned by the UK government’s Intellectual Property Office.
Of fundamental concern here is the potential illegal copying and use of the computer-aided design (CAD) files required to print objects in 3D. Her research identified hundreds of online platforms for the distribution of 3D printing files which were providing access to hundreds of thousands of designs.
Mendis’ research into online platforms reveals that interest in 3D printing has grown immensely between 2008 and 2014, but she identified limitations to the spread of the practice.
Potential users do not always have access to the right materials, funds to be able to purchase more sophisticated printers or the legal knowledge to license their work. Moreover, companies and businesses in this field informed her that there was currently little commercial impact on either automotive or domestic products. They predicted that 3D printing would remain limited for the next five to ten years.
For both Mendis and Daly, then, 3D printing has not yet lived up to initial hype over its ‘disruptive’ potential. Mendis recommended a ‘wait and see’ approach to UK government, concerned that legislating too hastily in this area might stifle creativity.
Nevertheless, as 3D printing technology improves and becomes cheaper, it might become the focus of increasing interest for legal scholars in the future.
A. Daly (2016) Socio-Legal Aspects of the 3D Printing Revolution, Palgrave MacMillan: UK
D. Mendis (2015) A Legal and Empirical Study into the Intellectual Property Implications of 3D Printing.
D. Mendis (2014) “Clone Wars”: Episode II – The Next Generation: The Copyright Implications relating to 3D Printing and Computer-Aided Design (CAD) Files. Law, Innovation and Technology, 6 (2), 265-281.
D. Mendis (2013) ‘The Clone Wars’ – Episode 1: The Rise of 3D Printing and its Implications for Intellectual Property Law – Learning Lessons from the Past?, European Intellectual Property Review, 35 (3), 155-169.