Personal 3D Printing vs Corporate Patent Lawyers & Gun Control
As affordable personal 3D printers achieve higher resolution, creating copies of protected products and controlled weapons will become a legal challenge
By Olin Coles
During the past three years, 3D printing technology has progressed beyond prototyping and developed into consumer production. What was once an expensive process that enabled quicker proto-fabrication has now become an affordable means for regular users to construct or duplicate any object of their desire. Inventors have championed 3D printers as devices favorable to their pursuit of product development, but the same technology will allow consumers the ability to copy their patented work or firearms without consideration. The resulting dilemma will play out in courts around the globe as 3D printing devices and the software that coordinates them are steadily improved.
Duplication is nothing new to authors, or their consumer counterparts. Problems began when the digital age ushered in the ability to reproduce audio products with perfect quality, without limitation. Multimedia products such as DVD and Blu-ray movies enjoy encoded digital data, enabling a level of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to regulate what can be decoded for enjoyment. This didn’t prevent consumers from creating digital clones of protected work, which is why 3D printing will prove so controversial. To understand where the fear comes from, you must understand the limitations of legal protection.
Copyright is a form of protection provided by law to authors of original works, including: literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, architectural design, software, the graphic arts, motion pictures, and sound recordings. What copyright doesn’t protect is tangible objects such as manufactured products, which are allowed protection through a filed patent. A patent is an intellectual property right granted to an inventor with exclusive right to make, use, and sell the innovation for a limited period of time in exchange for public disclosure when the patent is granted. But there are caveats, and interpretation is everything.
Inventors may argue that their patented idea includes a level of artistic design, but the courts may see things differently based on such narrow definitions. There already exists a physical counterpart in patents to a copyright’s fair use, called non-obviousness. The test for non-obviousness is whether the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the art at the time the invention was made. This is currently the basis for lawsuits between Apple and Samsung, over the design of smartphone devices.
Take for instance the LEGO® brick, which uses common geometric shapes to interlock pieces and build objects. While Denmark-based LEGO Group holds the patent, there’s very little preventing someone from reproducing an identical copy of their product with a personal 3D printer device. Matters may become let clear when they sell a copy, but a simple change in design could potentially nullify such events. The replication of physical items relegates 3D printing to the realm of disruptive technology, just like CD/DVD/Blu-ray Disc burners have been for computer users everywhere for over a decade.
This problem begins with consumer products, and may boil-over with fears that 3D printing could be used to create lethal weapons. Many laws already exist to prevent the purchase or unregistered procession of certain weapons, and other laws prohibit items entirely. 3D Printing can create (or recreate) nearly anything, which can be used to cast restricted automatic assault rifle parts or spike-laden ‘brass knuckles’. It’s a short matter of time before lawmakers begin to argue the inherent safety hazard an affordable high-resolution 3D printer could pose, ignoring the fact that these items have been home-fashioned for decades without this technology.
Unlike digital content, it could be very difficult to prevent users from ‘printing’ a controlled item. Some speculate that lawmakers could insist that the 3D software controlling printer output could be designed to require some form of legal authorization or approval, but the practicality of such a system would be easily defeated with the same level of effort that enables pirated software and video games to be used without registration. The problem must be approached from the standpoint of culpability, since there’s no realistic control to be had over printing in the age of jail-broken cellular phones.
Of course, the pursuit of legal restraint may be matched by inherent legal freedom in certain countries. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America, and the Second Amendment grants the right to keep and bear arms without infringement. Citizens are protected by The Bill of Rights, and are allowed to make their own weapons for personal use with few exceptions. Most 3D printers create polymer objects, and one such restriction is The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 which prohibits the production of non-detectable weapons. But despite these rights, someone somewhere will argue that something needs to be done.
The U.S. Constitution won’t stop corporations from funding lobbyists to push for tougher legislation, all in the name of protecting patents or keeping children free from harm. Once they succeed in creating laws that punish creators of controlled objects, attorneys are free to pad their hourly rates with prosecuting or defending the accused. This will cause our already-monstrous prison system to expand exponentially, while those convicted summarily lose their Constitutional 12th Amendment right to vote and consequently their 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Watch for this issue to explode in the coming years. There’s a mountain of money tied up in patents, and lawyers would love to turn this subject into a political talking point. Until 3D printing technology reaches a point where consumers can create 600 dpi objects as easily as they print full-color birthday cards, it will remain out of reach for most. Eventually the quality and affordability will be there, but only time will tell if the same spirit of technology that created 3D printing will hold it back.