February 6, 2014

BARELY LEGAL | Reimagining the Law in the Wake of 3-D Printing

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By TESS KEPPLER

Since the 1970s, 3-D printing technology has become increasingly sophisticated and efficient. For instance, last semester, Cornell researchers printed a fully functional loudspeaker. And just last month, Stratasys –– a 3-D printer manufacturer –– debuted a true multi-purpose, multi-material, full-color 3-D printing system –– the first of its kind on the market.

For those of you who are new to the idea, 3-D printers create objects from feedstock using source codes for each custom object. The possibilities for customized 3-D products are endless, but so are the legal ramifications.

Intellectual property issues are the most obvious type, since the nature of 3-D printing allows for a greater opportunity for infringement and theft. If you can access or replicate the code for an object, you can make that object for yourself quickly and relatively cheaply –– not to mention customize it to your heart’s desire. As the technology becomes more accessible to consumers, it’s easy to imagine the intellectual property losses reaching and surpassing the level of the digital piracy of music, videos, etc.

Gun control is another area of increased legal concern following the advancement of 3-D printing technologies. Last May, Cody Wilson, a law school dropout and self-labeled crypto-anarchist, successfully printed a plastic gun that could fire lethal rounds. He then tried to publicly post the instructions for how to repeat his process. Not only would plastic weapons like these easily pass through metal detectors, but they can also make it exponentially more difficult for the government to monitor and regulate weapons manufacture and trade.

For now, we have the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which stipulates that it is illegal to possess, manufacture, sell or otherwise receive a firearm that can’t be recognized by a metal detector. But this legislation is now insufficient. Wilson can’t be the only person in the country who is capable of developing the necessary kind of code to produce his own firearm, and others could easily keep their own versions private. Our ban on undetectable firearms may become essentially unenforceable. We should pity whoever is trying to solve these national security problems while simultaneously trying to avoid infringing upon important constitutional rights to privacy and firearms.

To complicate matters further, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are now collaborating with Stratasys to explore the idea of 4-D printing –– the fourth dimension being time. It is already possible to print 3-D objects that transform their properties when an outside stimulus of random energy is applied. For example, a geometrically simple resin object may be designed so it folds up into a complex shape when exposed to water or a change in temperature. With 4-D printing, objects will be programmed to transform themselves with no added stimulus but time.

Let’s consider the problem of printed guns again. Theoretically, gun parts could be printed as unidentifiable chunks of plastic or other materials that have been programmed to self-assemble into functional weapons after a certain amount of time.

Granted, making weapons doesn’t seem to be what MIT and Stratasys engineers have in mind. While the possibilities for 3-D printing are astonishing, potential applications for auto-altering printed materials are truly boundless, especially in terms of large-scale construction that would conventionally require many on-site human laborers. Skyscrapers could literally assemble themselves anywhere. This alone brings to mind several international law and property law implications. If building things in traditionally harsh or uncharted territory becomes much easier, we may be headed for some seriously tricky property claims disputes. International waters may not easily remain so international. And Dennis Hope, the man who has been selling moon acreage since 1980, may finally have a real chance to shine.

There are an infinite number of obstacles and just as many exciting potential applications in the future of 3-D and 4-D printing technology. Whether you fear or embrace the possibilities, the legal and policy-setting implications will undoubtedly be huge. And if 3-D and 4-D printing could create self-constructed skyscrapers on the moon, let’s hope they could also help make some room for a few new jobs in the currently uninspiring legal job market too.

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