Journal of Information & Privacy Law

Printing in a Whole New Dimension – 3D Printing has Arrived

By Melinda Tsang, Executive Business Editor on Friday, November 15th, 2013
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Instead of printing a 2-dimensional image on paper, you can now purchase a 3D printer that will spray layers upon layers of “ink” to form an object.  This “ink” can be various substances, like plastic, metals, and even human tissue.  First, the object to be duplicated is scanned into the computer.  Alterations can be made digitally before printing.  The idea of creating an object by the additive process, as opposed to filling a mold chiseling away the unwanted parts, is novel.

Theoretically in the convenience of your own home you can print anything you could purchase at a store.  Any member of the public can print a 3D object by using software that communicates between the computer and printer.  After printing, that object has jumped from the computer screen into your hands.  Objects can take hours or even days to print.

Currently, the utility of this technology at home is limited.  It might be a great tool for someone who wants unique designs and pieces for arts and crafts.  However, we are far away from being able to print replacement parts like a factory would.  It will also not print a working electronic device with moving parts, like a computer.  Hence, it is unlikely that manufacturers and retailers would go out of business anytime soon as a result of the 3D printer.  Additionally, it can only print objects a few feet long.  Longer objects might require human assembly after printing is completed.

The legal questions that arise out of this newly available technology are largely based in tort.  If a private individual purchases the “blueprint” off a website, who owns the object that is printed?  If there are any defects with the design created by a third party, would the individual who created the object be liable?  Similarly, with printing human tissue, does that product belong to the person who the cells originated from or to the hospital/ lab that printed the tissue?

Public policy may be another concern with 3D printing capability.  Would printing component parts in the secret of one’s home make it harder for the government to detect threats such as home-made weapons or bombs?  Because of this new technology, will there be cases involving privacy rights just because this printer produces a physical object?  While the 3D printing community advances and printing of practical objects becomes a reality, the law will be adjusted and defined accordingly, just as other technologies have molded the law in the past.

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