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3D printing law – What is illegal?

Digital manufacturing businesses like ProtoLabs use 3D printing for rapid prototyping, medical companies use the technology to create prosthetics, organs and dental crowns; restaurants are starting to produce customised 3D printed meals and the construction sector is using 3D printing to help build affordable housing in developing countries. Penetrating so many walks of life, there’s an inordinate number of potential legal ramifications related to 3D printing. So, what exactly is illegal when it comes to using the technology? We look at what you cannot legally reproduce via 3D printing and other key legal issues relating to the technology.
What is 3D printing?
Similar to traditional printing, 3D printing creates a tangible representation of information gleaned from a computer file. Instead of using ink to create an image on a piece of paper, 3D printers produce a 3D object from a CAD drawing, using various different materials, including metals, molten plastics, powders and resins.  An object is created using hundreds of cross-sectional layers, added gradually to form the required shape, hence the reason it is referred to as additive manufacturing. Although expensive and predominantly used in a manufacturing environment, 3D printers are readily available for almost anyone to purchase. However, thanks to their unique technological capabilities and availability, it does open the door for exploitation and potentially illegal activities.

Intellectual property
Because 3D printing makes it so easy to reproduce existing objects so precisely and easily, it also proffers potential issues to do with intellectual property and patent law. Owning a patent on a particular object prevents others from legally reproducing it. Therefore, if you 3D print an object with a patent, this is deemed illegal also. If you have a product or object you wish to patent, it is crucial to keep the CAD files confidential and highly protected as the intellectual property of your company or yourself. Having access to this file provides all the details needed to copy and reproduce a product exactly. On the other hand, if you are the one reproducing an object with patent, you could face actions taken under copyright law.
Firearm and assault weapons
In the UK, the manufacturing of guns and parts for guns is banned under the Firearms Act 1968 which will also include 3D printed guns by definition. In 2019, The Guardian reported that a UK student was convicted for manufacturing a 3D printed gun despite claims that the gun was designed as a movie-prop. In the U.S, it is illegal to manufacture a firearm that cannot be detected using a metal detector, under the Undetectable Firearms Act, therefore legal designs must include metal plates in printed bodies. Some policy makers are now fighting to prevent the online dissemination of gun designs online.
Skimming equipment made using 3D printing
Skimming is another risk related to the legalities of 3D printing. As far back as 2014, a man was arrested in France for 3D printing cash machine facades which he used to clone cards inserted into it. He managed to steal £24,000. And in 2019, a German hacker proved he could effectively reproduce handcuff keys using 3D printing and laser cutting to open handcuffs, highlighting an important issue for police who use standard keys so suspects can be released and locked up by different officers. The hacker, ‘Ray’ who is a computer security consultant, explained that his aim was to expose the vulnerabilities faced by police.

In conclusion
There are so many eventualities related to 3D printing that it’s impossible to calculate the full extent of the legal risks in the future. But one certainty is that if the popularity and use of 3D printing continues, greater legal complexities will ensue. For instance, consider the case where a 3D printed object is malfunctional in some way. Who would be liable for the defectiveness of the product? The company who produced the 3D printer, or the company who distributed the design? Also, how is it possible to regulate the home printing of copyrighted and illegal goods and products? This new exciting technology has brought about impressive positive changes, particularly in the field of medicine, but there remains a myriad of legal issues, some of which are impossible to predict.

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