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Paul Banwatt is currently working with Matterform, Inc., a start-up 3D scanner manufacturer in Toronto, Canada. His legal practice as an associate at Gilbert’s LLP focused on issues facing firms in disruptive industries, including 3D printing, as well as global health law, social finance, and intellectual property.
In 2011, I arrived late to the 3D printing party. I knew that expiring patents on basic 3D printing technologies were allowing low-cost 3D printers to proliferate. I had heard about MakerBot, an upstart low-cost 3D printer manufacturer in New York promising to change the way we make things. And I learned about RepRap, a group of DIY enthusiasts bent on creating machines that could self-replicate. People had been saying that 3D printers would revolutionize manufacturing, bringing customization to a new level. 3D printers were about to change the planet. It was exciting, but in an age with bitcoin, graphene, quantum computing, and wearable technologies, “world-changing” is a term you hear a lot. Besides, for decades manufacturers had used 3D printing technologies to rapidly prototype parts. Some online commentators and bloggers had noted the potential for low-cost 3D printing to create legal problems, but it all seemed far-fetched and a bit premature to me.
My personal moment of revelation came when I saw an online video of a machine printing the all too familiar bust of the Star Wars character Yoda. Soon after, I saw another machine doing the same . . . and another . . . and another. In fact, perhaps because of his instantly recognizable features, Yoda was everywhere, being used as a means of demonstrating the ever-increasing capabilities and accuracy of low-cost 3D printers. Lucasfilm has vigorously defended its intellectual property rights in the Star Wars franchise, yet here was the likeness of one of its most iconic characters being freely reproduced, distributed, and made. I felt like 3D printing and intellectual property were on a collision course. By 2012, people had started seriously thinking and writing about the impending legal implications of 3D printing. A few legal demand letters were sent from rights holders to alleged patent infringing makers, and I had become deeply interested.
I started writing the blog, Law in the Making, with another Toronto-based lawyer, Haran Aruliah. The blog is focused on the myriad legal issues raised by 3D technologies such as printing and scanning. The international dimension of the blog has flowed naturally from my own cross-border work in New York and Ontario, but I quickly realized that the legal implications of 3D printing extend far beyond North America. In fact, I have found that the differences in intellectual property laws worldwide create a multifaceted lens that can make it easier to see the implications of a disruptive technology like 3D printing—questions like: Who is the copyright owner when an automated machine scans your body and prints out a figurine shaped like you? Is it the programmer of the machine or the user? Or nobody? It may depend on the country you’re in. 3D food printers are big news these days, but could your 3D printed pizza infringe a patent? It might, but still only in countries in which such patents have been granted. Do vast differences in design protections, such as the UK’s 10–15 years of automatic protection for an original 3D design, have implications for 3D printing? Yes, they almost certainly do. Can existing border measures stop counterfeits in a future world where trademarked 3D designs fly unobstructed across borders over the Internet? This one is actually easy: probably not.
Outside the world of intellectual property, the questions are even more numerous, but our blog has attempted to address those questions too. Does strict product liability attach to harms caused by 3D printed products? A recent article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review suggests that 3D printers may create large gaps in product liability law. Are 3D printed guns any different than regular guns? It might depend whether they are detectable by x-ray, whether or not they are being sold, and it definitely depends what country you are in.
What I never expected when we started the blog was that the issues would become more complex. I’m often more surprised by the questions than the lack of answers. It truly is law in the making.