Front and Center at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, 3-D Printing Technology Raises Unique Legal Issues

January 16, 2014

As the Consumer Electronics Show wrapped up this past weekend, the technology community began to analyze the most recent trends and developments. One product which made a somewhat surprising showing was the new age of 3-D printers. After having just eight 3-D printing exhibitors at the show in 2013, there were 28 exhibitors present this year.
3-D printers are certainly a futuristic concept. These machines allow for a process in which three-dimensional solid objects are created from a digital model. 3-D printing is achieved using an additive process in which successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes to ultimately create the finished product.  While currently used by a fairly minor market of makers and crafters who enjoy creating prototypes figurines and small toys, the industry has been moving closer to reaching its larger potential.
According to the market research firm Gartner, shipments of 3-D printers will grow 75% in 2014. Gartner expects market for consumer 3-D printing to hit $133 million this year. The current lack of seemingly practical applications does not concern many leaders in the industry. Daniel Cowen, co-founder of 3Doodler, a 3-D printing pen, recently explained to the Los Angeles Times that this technology “puts the power to make an object or manufacture an object in anyone’s hands. You no longer need to go to a factory.”

Of course this new frontier of manufacturing has the possibility to lead to a number of potential legal issues.

Viewers at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show were able to view 3-D printers accomplish a variety of task. XYZprinting’s Da Vinci printer has the capacity to quickly create household items such as plastic cups or plastic spoons. 3DSystems demonstrated its ChefJet 3-D food printer which has the capability to create complex shapes out of edible materials such as sugar and chocolate. Not only are 3-D printers able to perform more and more complicated task but the traditionally prohibitive cost elements of the technology are beginning to diminish. MakerBot, one of the more popular brands, recently announced its new product line set to come out in May of this year will cost $1,375, about $1,500 less than the company’s flagship products. Some 3-D printer options currently on the market can be bought for as little as $200.
Of course this new frontier of manufacturing has the possibility to lead to a number of potential legal issues. Currently, the majority of 3-D printing companies do not create replicas of existing products or commercial characters. Without licensing deals, the creation of such products could lead to litigation and a foray into intellectual property law.  Possibly the most practical use of 3-D printers are to create and replace broken or missing parts. While creating a replacement part to your favorite coffee maker would be cheaper and quicker to do at home using a 3-D printer, the failure to buy the replacement from the manufacturer could potentially lead to charges of theft.  If manufacturing companies did choose to crack down on these types of activities, it is foreseeable that 3-D object files could be traded and pirated much in the way that movies and music are currently.
Additionally, some believe that 3-D printing technology may be used for more dangerous purposes and have begun to look for statutory ways in which to counteract this possibility. Lawmakers in New Jersey and New York have introduced legislation that would ban the possession of weapons made using 3-D printers.  The fear is that such technology would allow individuals to make weaponry  with no markings or identification or even any indication that it was in existence until after the weapon was used.  As Brian Jenkins, a former adviser to the National Commission on Terrorism, notes that, “as we come up with new types of technology, it creates new vulnerabilities.” Regardless of how long it takes 3-D printing technology to reach common commercial use, the technology will only continue to develop and grow in popularity. Ultimately, the issues involving intellectual property and the potential creation of weapons must be addressed.