3-D Printing: A Concern? Or an Opportunity?

Posted By: Ashlee Hoffmann

Airwolf 3-D Printer. Photo by Eva Wolf

Airwolf 3-D Printer. Photo by Eva Wolf

Evolving technology – like the personal computer, paper printing, and the internet – has forced copyright law to struggle to stay relevant and applicable. Another upcoming technology promises much of the same: 3-D printing.

3-D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. It works by slowly adding material to build up an object layer by layer vertically. While it might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, 3-D printing is becoming an increasingly viable option for common consumers. The technology has been around since the 1980s but recent advancements have made it faster, better, and cheaper.

A recent report featuring technologies that will “force businesses to adapt or die” highlights 3-D printing. This technology represents a great opportunity for businesses, but it also promises concern for copyright holders. There are a couple of theories involved with 3-D printing that hint at copyright infringement: Direct infringement by users and contributory infringement by websites and 3-D printer makers. Designers who sell files may find their work copied and freely distributed around the internet. Similarly, copyright holders may suddenly find 3-D models of their works or characters shared so that they can be easily reproduced by any consumer with a 3-D printer.

Unfortunately, the courts haven’t had the chance to create much precedent on this issue. Analogies with past cases (using different technologies) suggest that 3-D printer manufacturers will likely not be held liable because 3-D printers are capable of substantial non-infringing uses. Contributory infringement by other sites, however, could be a viable legal path for copyright holders. For example, some websites host designs uploaded by users that can be downloaded and used to print materials and objects. These designs, like music and movie files shared through peer-to-peer networks, might be copyrighted. If these websites gain the same reputation as isoHunt.com, courts might force them to shut down.

While copyright holders could attempt to use existing copyright precedent to address their concerns with 3-D printing, there is a better way. They could work with technology developers to implement safeguards in the technology itself or work with Congress to create newer, more effective, and more targeted laws to protect their interests. They also have a chance to reevaluate their business models in order to take advantage of 3-D printing opportunities. Unlike sudden technological advancements, 3-D printing is taking its time before its mass-market debut. This gives time for stakeholders to be proactive.

Technology is not stagnant; it evolves faster than the laws that try to govern it. But if current laws fail to address pertinent concerns, then stakeholders should propagate new laws rather than trying to pigeon-hole 3-D printing into an outdated model. Either that, or stakeholders should adapt their business models so that when 3-D printing arrives, they’re not only for it – they’ll thrive on it.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s