3D printing is, in many ways, like nothing anyone has ever seen before – and that includes the legal field. 3D printing has presented a whole new set of legal issues to be sorted through, and those issues go beyond copyright violation – although that’s one of them. 3D printing has its own unique set of intellectual property and civil liability problems, and legal experts and governments are still working to find the best ways to address them.

The European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs recently released a working document dedicated to issues of intellectual property rights and civil liability in regards to 3D printing. The report brings up several issues, pointing out concerns in the medical field about the ethics of organ reproduction, as well as safety concerns about the production of automotive and aeronautical parts and firearms.

“3D printing also carries the risk of facilitating counterfeiting, not only in terms of individuals who might take advantage of exceptions for private copying, but also organised networks profiting from the sale of counterfeit goods,” the report states. “To prevent counterfeiting it is essential, therefore, to develop lawful 3D printing services, so that individuals who want to make a print of a work can do so without breaking the law, and ensuring that the author is fairly remunerated.”

Sad face by Thingiverse user Loubie, created after her intellectual property was stolen

The report isn’t designed to offer any concrete solutions for solving the intellectual property and civil liability issues in the 3D printing industry, but rather to point out the areas of most concern and discuss potential ways to mitigate them. First, the report tackles intellectual property. There’s a difference, it says, between home 3D printing for private use and commercial 3D printing, and home 3D printing isn’t causing a huge problem with copyright infringement. It cites another report drawn up for France’s Higher Council for Literary and Artistic Property that states:

“The great majority of fablab clients, such as online printing services, are professionals, especially designers, who use this technology to produce limited-edition objects as part of their creative activities. The main risk of counterfeiting is with works of art.”

The main challenge, the report continues, is to involve professional copyright intermediaries more closely.

The area of civil liability is quite murky. Who is responsible, the report asks, when someone is harmed by a 3D printed object? Is it the person who created the object, or is it the manufacturer of the 3D printer, or the creator of the software used to make the object?

“In general, civil liability is a matter which is not harmonised but subject to national legislation,” the report says. “EU legislation is limited to more specific rules on issues such as civil liability for defective products. As far as this liability is concerned, the question of whether 3D printer manufacturers should have greater liability than manufacturers of other tools or machines that can be used to create objects should be examined.”

The report raises other questions such as whether 3D files should include elements to make them traceable, or whether 3D printed objects should be embedded with traceable markers. It points out several solutions that have already been suggested to deal with issues of civil liability and intellectual property: creating a global database of 3D printable objects to control reproductions of copyright-protected items; introducing a legal limit on the number of private copies can be made of 3D objects; or imposing a tax on 3D printing to compensate intellectual property holders for losses suffered through private copies being made of 3D printed objects. None of these solutions, the report says, “is wholly satisfactory on its own.”

“It will take many years and a good deal of expertise before high-quality products can be made which do not pose a risk to users or consumers,” the report continues. “Anticipating problems relating to accident liability or intellectual property infringement will require the adoption of new legislation at EU level or the tailoring of existing laws to the specific case of 3D printing.”

You can read the full report here.

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