3D printing (a.k.a. additive manufacturing) makes objects by layering materials based on a digital 3D model. A variety of 3D printing technologies are in use and the market is growing rapidly across many industries. At the same time, new and refined 3D printing technologies are being developed.
3D printing is transforming business and industry in ways not experienced since the rise of the computer, CAD/CAM, robotics and artificial intelligence. Enterprising law firms with vision are getting into the cutting-edge issues raised by the 3D printing revolution, positioning themselves for this brave new world by establishing discrete 3-D printing practices.
Why is 3D Printing Law Hot?
3D printing is triggering a revolution in the market. It is now possible to customize a product to an individual. It is changing the market from mass production to individually-targeted production. It is also getting cheaper all the time.
Today in 2018, 3D printing is a $12 billion market. Studies predict that the 3D printing industry will be valued at $20 billion by 2020, with comparable increases expected thereafter.
Elements of 3D Printing Law
3D printing is creating a flood of cutting-edge legal issues. The most affected practice areas at present are:
It is potentially possible to recreate any type of item by means of a 3D printer. I recently witnessed the making of a prosthetic hand that came with an opposable thumb and fingers able to grasp objects. Even food can be created via 3D printing. I witnessed a demonstration of a 3D printer that made pasta.
If any object can be 3D-printed, then additive manufacturing will give rise to an enormous expansion of pirated and counterfeit products. In order to copy an object, you just need two things: an electronic schematic of the product and a 3D printer. This means anyone can copy a lot of different designs, a tremendous threat to intellectual property (IP) protection. It will take a major effort for IP laws to catch up with 3D printing’s potential for abuse. In addition to its impact on patents, trademarks and copyrights, related issues such as trade secrets and false advertising must also be considered.
3D printers can also make very dangerous products such as guns, knives, and drugs. Pinpointing the liability for such products is going to be messy. Let’s hypothesize that someone manufactures an item at home that blows up. The liability for that logically reposes in the manufacturer, but in this context the person manning the printer is the manufacturer. Does liability rest with the owner of the printer, the manufacturer or supplier of the printer, or the person that printed and/or used the product? This question will be decided by legislatures and courts, but it will likely take years to achieve a universally acceptable result.
3D-printed replicas may contain personal data. Surgical teams, for example, are beginning to use perfect 3D-printed copies of organs in order to anticipate any issues they might encounter during surgery. The issue of whether patient consent is required prior to copying his/her organ is unresolved, as is the hospital’s right to use that organ down the road for research and other purposes. In addition, there is the issue of information-sharing with insurers or other third parties.
There are many open questions about 3D printing and, as frequently happened in relation to any new type of technology, legislators and courts might not be fully prepared for them.
Who’s Doing It
A rapidly increasing number of major law firms have launched 3D printing practice groups. Boutique law firms that focus on providing 3D printing legal services are also emerging, but at a somewhat slower rate than “BigLaw” practice groups.
Corporate in-house counsel offices are beginning to seek attorneys who know something about the legal implications of additive manufacturing. This phenomenon is developing faster in certain industries. The fashion industry, for example, has no choice but to seek attorneys with some knowledge of the field. Fashion is probably the industry that is currently the most disrupted by 3D printing. It’s a $375 billion industry employing more than 300,000 people in the U.S. and a $1.4 trillion industry globally.
Where Should You Be Looking
Look for geographic areas with a large and diverse manufacturing base, a concentration of high-tech startups, strong healthcare, and/or collaborative training initiatives between academe and business.
You will be able to present yourself as a stronger candidate if you learn as much as you can about the non-legal aspects of 3D printing technology (e.g., electrical, software and chemical characteristics); the history of additive manufacturing; the issues affecting manufacturers, distributors, retailers and end users of 3D equipment; the industries most affected; how it is changing both the business and home environments; and keeping current with developments in the field and the law.
The cascade effect of 3D printing as it insinuates itself into new industries and markets, combined with the advent of new and improved 3D printing technologies, virtually guarantees that the law will have a hard time keeping up. Whenever there is a “law-technology gap,” that is very good news for attorneys because it translates to high demand for legal expertise and services.
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