3D Printing - Utilities and Liabilities

Intellectual property is an area of law that deals with legal rights associated with creative or intellectual effort, or commercial reputation and goodwill.  There is a vast array of ‘property’ that falls within the ambit of this area of law -  plays, songs, movies, books, paintings, designs, distinguishing marks used by manufacturers, and inventions.  As the term ‘intellectual property’ suggests, it is a kind of property created by the human mind, which makes it intangible in nature. This means that one cannot ‘hold’ or ‘touch’ intellectual property unlike other forms of property such as land.

Modern technology has made the creation of new forms of intellectual property very easy, and far more accessible to the public.  A tablet or a smartphone enables a person to create and publish multiple types of content far more easily than ever before in human history. As a result, the domain of intellectual property protection is expanding as fast as information technology itself. Newer areas are emerging and gaining recognition, and older areas have started embracing newer concepts within their fold.

3D printing is a technology that turns a 3D digital model created on a computer or with a scanner into a physical object, letting users “print” almost anything.

3D printing technology emerged in the 1980s largely for industrial application. The availability of low-cost, high-performance 3D printers has put the technology within reach of consumers, fueling huge expectations about what it can achieve.  The 3D printing process starts either with a digital file in which the object to be printed is digitally formatted using either 3D print software, or a 3D scanner. The file is then exported to a 3D printer using dedicated software, which transforms the digital model into a physical object through a process in which molten material is built up layer upon layer until the finished object emerges. This process is also referred to as additive manufacturing.

The 3D printers available today use a variety of materials ranging from plastics to ceramics, and from metals to hybrid materials. In recent times, 3D printing technology has made some great strides in its production content and quality. Recently the world’s first 3-D printed liveable house was constructed in Stupino, Russia.

The food industry has been revolutionized with the advent of 3-D printing. The latest generation of 3D food printers combines nozzles, powdery material, lasers, and robotic arms to make sugar sculptures, patterned chocolate, and latticed pastry. The Foodini, for example, uses fresh ingredients loaded into stainless steel capsules to make foods like pizza, stuffed pasta, quiche, and brownies. A prototype design by Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia, fabricates nutrition bars and simple pastries.

The global population is expected to grow to an estimated 9.6 billion people by 2050, and some analysts project that food production will need to be raised by 50 percent to maintain current levels. 3D food printing could contribute to the solution by using hydrocolloids, or substances that form gels with water, that could be used to replace the base ingredients of familiar dishes with plentiful renewables like algae, duckweed, and grass.

A team at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research in Germany has developed a printing method for microalgae. Grocery stores of the future might stock “food cartridges” that last years on end rather than perishable whole ingredients, freeing up shelf space and reducing transportation and storage requirements. 3D food printers could do more than produce renewable, environmentally-friendly food stores — they also have the potential to revolutionize nutrition, and would be able to deliver exact dosages of drugs, vitamins and supplements, and foods customized to the specific caloric needs of a given user. In Germany, a group of retirement homes have adopted 3D printing technology that purees vegetables like carrots and broccoli into nutritional, easy-to-chew soft molds of their original shape. And WASP, a 3D printing company based in Italy, is testing a printer that can produce gluten-free versions of popular foods.

Pitfalls of 3-D printed creations

When objects are copied without permission, there is a distinct possibility of infringing third party rights. Although legal principles apply to 3D printing the same as they apply to any other technology, 3D printing has the unique potential to upset the legal status quo. It is the potential scale of 3D printing that may have profound effects on the law. 3D printing cuts across many areas of law, most types of technology, and almost all types of products. Eventually, anyone may be able to make almost anything.

Illegal activity: when anyone can 3D print things with virtually any functionality, illegal activity away from control will proliferate.

Identification: such activity, which is away from control, will be increasingly difficult to identify.

Impractical or Impossible: it will be increasingly impractical or impossible to enforce the law against such activity.

Impotent: such laws will become increasingly impotent; they will exist and be enforceable for 3D printing within control, but will be largely irrelevant for 3D printing away from control.

Thus, as the democratization of manufacturing increases away from control, applicable laws are likely to become increasingly irrelevant.

Risks to Legal Systems

However, the democratization of manufacturing may threaten applicable laws in any industry where 3D printing can be used to make parts and products, including consumer products, aerospace, automotive, and health care. In the aerospace industry, customers, especially government customers, may start to 3D print their own parts. In the consumer products and auto industries, consumers, and independent fabricators will eventually print products and replacement parts.

In health care, domestic and offshore black markets and other types of 3D printing away from control could result from democratized manufacturing, and therefore threaten the potency of laws related to healthcare products. For scenarios involving black market 3D printed human organs a few decades from now to printing of pathogens using sophisticated bio-printers, the potential harms of 3-D printing are apparent. Hence the need of the hour is to regulate 3-D printers and the 3-D printing market by amending the current intellectual property regime.


on 10 May 2017
Published in Intellectual Property Rights
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