As an entrepreneur in the 3D printing field, you are on the cutting edge of new technologies. However, cutting edges can actually be sharp, with painful legal consequences. In the case of 3D printing, many of the murky legal situations have not been resolved. This does not mean that you, the entrepreneur, are absolved of responsibility, but that you have to educate yourself on the concerns and prepare yourself properly.

Some are calling the advent of 3D printing the 3rd industrial revolution – meaning, everything is going to be different moving forward. It is therefore highly likely that the legal landscape will evolve along with it, in order to manage the new reality of 3D printing, a reality where anyone can independently create just about anything.

This article will cover a few of the more pertinent and complicated issues that you may want to begin investigating before beginning your own 3D printing endeavor.

Product Liability

Product liability law concerns itself with manufacturers’ responsibility for faulty items in the hands of consumers. While this legal3D Printed Guns concept might make sense in a traditional manufacturing setting, in the brave new world of 3D printing, all cards are shuffled. Who is the manufacturer in the context of 3D printing? Today, the old line between manufacturer and consumer needs to be redrawn.

For example, a company legally prints mechanical spare parts according to the design of their original supplier, on their own 3D printer. The parts malfunction, and people are hurt as a result. Who is liable? Is it the company who designed the part? Is it the client who printed the part on his own printer – or perhaps the manufacturer who manufactured the printer itself?

The list of examples is endless, ranging from printed pharmaceutical drugs, to organic human tissue. These are all new cases that have not been adequately tested in the courts to be sure of the answer to these liability questions – but that does not mean that they do not exist.

How to Limit Your Risk

While each country or territory has its own legal infrastructure, some underlying principles can help entrepreneurs globally. For example, it is highly recommended to address the issue of liability in any contract you enter into in the 3D printing field. ClearlyProtecting Yourself state who will be liable in the event of a mishap, and, where you can, limit your liability, especially if your company prints items for hire. This can safeguard you against a suit for printing items that do not meet certain product standards or that harm others. Although as a business, you cannot contractually limit your liability to consumers, you can limit your liability in business relationships. Similarly, you can stipulate requirements: which instructions must be included with products printed, quality of materials that must be used and more. Do not forget that ensuring the quality of the product in the best way you can is the best way to protect yourself and the public, while engaging in responsible 3D printing business.

IP – Intellectual Property

The original intent of all of IP law, which relates to copyright, design and patents, is to propel innovation forward. The purpose was to allow private access to an idea for a limited amount of time so that the inventors (as well artists) would be motivated to develop and explore ideas. The legal thinking argued that if stakeholders have a vested interest, they will invest in developing their ideas and therefore, IP protection fosters innovation.

However, many argue that current IP laws hold back innovation. The critics argue that because there is no way to control the pirating of intellectual property, the market should create new models. Proponents of open source argue that it is the very freedom of information that allows developers to build on each other’s work and to exponentially grow knowledge and innovation. In fact, open source 3D printing has been proven to have a high rate of return on scientific research, supporting this point of view even further.

Determined that patents will not hold back the 3D materials industry, Joshua Pearce, a materials scientist and engineer staunchly devoted to open source, developed an algorithm which determines the obviousness of 3D materials. His work makes it nearly impossible to patent 3D materials because they have become “obvious” and un-patentable.

Nonetheless, many different IP questions arise, and it is important to be aware of a few basic issues:

  • Can one protect a 3D blueprint?
  • Can you print a product on your own that is currently patented? Can you print spare parts for a product that is patented?
  • Can you patent organic tissues (such as organs)?
  • If you are selling your printing services, do you need to ensure that the CAD (“Computer Aided Design” – your 3D blueprint) sent to you legally belongs to your client?
  • Can imported digital designs be held accountable to import regulations? In the United States, for example, a Federal court recently ruled that digital designs are not “things” and therefore are not subject to their oversight, leaving a huge loophole for foreign entities to disregard IP laws.
  • With the wide distribution of 3D printers – is the maintaining IP rights even possible?

How to Minimize Risk

Because there are so many open questions, it is advisable to be proactive. Let your insurance provider know you are active in 3D printing and ensure that you are covered. Do your due diligence to make sure that you are not unknowingly participating in the printing of copyrighted materials, and make it clear that liability in the event of breach of a third party copyright sits squarely with the perpetrator.

Brave New World

In 2013, IBM analyzed the industry, and their recommendations included regarding IP law called for “protecting businesses but balancing this with enabling innovation by disruptive technologies and open source platforms, revising stifling legacy regulations.” As an industry, they suggest that stakeholders create supportive trust mechanisms in the free market system instead of investing resources on IP wars. This, along with new business models (similar to what occurred in the music industry) can bring value back to copyright holders.

There are many points to consider, and things will change rapidly in this industry. Keep your wits about you and make sure to consult your legal advisor if anything is unclear. 

The information presented is not legal advice, is not to be acted on as such, may not be current and is subject to change without notice.