What are the legal aspects of 3D printing? A European law firm weighs in

3D printed guns and firearms have once again become a hot-button issue within the 3D printing industry, as the world’s first 3D printed revolver has just come to light while the New South Wales government has implemented a law that specifically makes owning a 3D printed gun illegal. Yet even if firearms aren’t your cup of tea, if you either design or create 3D printed products, you could be infringing on IP law, copyrights, or a host of other legal issues without even knowing it.

As a topic that easily generates a lot more questions than answers, we could probably all use a little brushing up on the legal aspects surrounding 3D printing. Luckily, Dutch law firm De Clercq Advocaten Notarissen has just issued a brief yet educational white paper that covers everything from intellectual property law (IP) to copyright law, to the especially murky waters of product liability, all within the new reality of the 3D printing industrial revolution. Though written based on Dutch law and regulations, these are generally implemented based on the European Directives, and thus will be consistent with many other European countries, and in some cases perhaps not so far off from US or other nations’ policies.

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The 3D printing revolution: Prepare for the risks, leverage the opportunities

3D printing is not just for tchotchkes anymore.  Technological advancement paired with decreasing costs to build and/or purchase 3D printers create the perfect storm for the next industrial revolution.  3D printing technology will virtually transform the way companies conduct business, affecting manufacturing processes, disrupting the supply chain, and transforming  primary and logistics businesses.  Just as importantly, 3D printing, once it takes hold, will have substantial implications on intellectual property (“IP”):  patents, copyrights and trademarks.

Analysts at Gartner predict that “[b]y 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in intellectual property globally.”  Gartner Reveals Top Predictions for IT Organizations and Users for 2014 and Beyond, October 8, 2013.  It is easy to imagine why.  For example, today there are a number of “online maker sites.” On Shapeways, users can upload digital design files of products, which Shapeways uses to 3D print products and ship back to the users.  Shapeways also hosts online “shops” for users to sell their 3D printed products.  Through Thingiverse, users can download other users’ design files to print products or “remix” products by modifying a file or merging multiple files.

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Innovations emerge to pre-empt the counterfeit threat of 3D printing

The anxiety that 3D printing could lead to a new front in the war against counterfeiting and trademark infringement has increased exponentially this year, thanks to a predicted ‘explosion’ in the new technology due to the expiration of some key patents. Welcome new innovations could ease those worries but there is still much to be done.

3D printing and additive manufacturing technology is advancing at a startling rate, meaning more companies are introducing it as a means of cheaper and more efficient manufacturing. It also means much easier pirating of protected designs, as it requires just a digital 3D blueprint to be downloaded and printed to create an identical-looking copy. Gartner predicted earlier in the year that the emergence of 3D printing will create “major challenges” in relations to IP theft, predicting a loss “of at least $100 billion per year in IP globally” by 2018.

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