3D Printers: The Legal Implications of the Perfect Gift for Technology Lovers

If you are technology geeks like us, you may be hoping that Santa’s elves have integrated the construction of 3D printers into their work regimen this holiday season. If so, you may be lucky enough to have limitless design and manufacturing capabilities right at your fingertips. Whether it is a product of your own design or the replication of another, 3D printers afford users the opportunity to become both designer and manufacturer right from your own home. But let the buyer beware. With such power, comes great responsibility.

Before you harness the power of your new 3D printer, it is important to know exactly what a 3D printer is. Like its name implies, 3D printing is the process of “printing” three-dimensional objects. Unlike traditional printing, 3D printing utilizes a process known as additive manufacturing to create three-dimensional objects of almost any shape or geometry. Rather than simply copying a two-dimensional image onto a sheet of paper, the additive process creates an object by laying down thinly sliced, horizontal cross-sections of material until the entire object is created.

Typically, the 3D printing process begins in one of two ways:  (1) the user can create a virtual design using a 3D modeling program, or (2) the user can use a 3D scanner to make a three-dimensional copy of an existing object which is transferred to the 3D modeling program. Thereafter, the 3D modeling program slices the model into thousands of horizontal layers which are uploaded to the 3D printer. The 3D printer then creates the object in successive layers of liquid, powder, paper or sheet metal.  Materials such as plastic, sand, or metal can be used through the 3D print nozzle to create the final object. Simple enough, right?

As amazing as it may sound to play amateur designer/manufacturer, we have to warn you that the law may want to limit your fun. For starters, you may want to brush up on the concept of copyright infringement before you start replicating any and every item in your purview. Additive manufacturing drastically raises the risk of the production of counterfeit products. With your printer, you can instantly discover the “formula” of any product by scanning it with a 3D scanner and recreating it by uploading the digital file. All of this would, of course, be in violation of any copyrights held by the product manufacturer.

If copyright infringement is not enough, you also may want to consider our good friend, product liability. 3D printed objects may lack the quality of traditional products due to the nature of their construction. 3D printed objects are constructed in layers rather than as solid pieces from a mold.   While it is uncertain as to whether the perceived quality deficiency of 3D printed objects equates to a higher likelihood of failure and risk to the user, it is conceivable that this could be the case. Moreover, 3D printers, like any other printer or manufacturing machine, may also make mistakes in transcribing the digital file. Corruption can also occur in the digital file itself and result in the production of a defective product. For the best gift check this site out.

Above all else, the most problematic issue is trying to figure out where you, as at-home manufacturer, fit into the supply chain. Let’s say you decide to sell the objects you produce with your printer. Those objects were generated using a 3D scanner to copy an existing product manufactured by Company X which the you purchased at Store Y.  What happens when one of your customers purchases the 3D printed object from you and is injured due to a design defect in the product? Who is liable? Could you be liable for creating the 3D product? What about the manufacturer of the 3D printer? The manufacturer of the original product? The retailer who sold the original product?  Conceivably, all of the above could face liability under a traditional product liability theory. But it could also be arguable that you, as the at-home manufacturer, should bear the brunt of the liability. Strict liability product law traditionally only applies to designers, manufacturers and suppliers of allegedly defective products. So expect to hear arguments that these entities should not be liable for 3D copies of their products, particularly if the alleged defect arises from the copying process. If successful, you might find yourself wishing you had never gotten that Christmas gift in the first place.

We here at Abnormal Use give you this advice not as a means of keeping you away from 3D printers. In fact, we would love to have one ourselves. Rather, we just advise you to use caution. Resist the urge to replicate everything in your house and design your own products. Preferably those that won’t injure anybody.

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