Regulating a Revolution – 3D Printing

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3D printing is currently one of the biggest buzzwords in technologically inclined circles. And yet, it is not in and of itself a new technology, and has been in existence since 1984. The current increase in its popularity is because it is only now becoming accessible to the common consumer. But that is exactly why 3D printing is so important. Consumer-level 3D printing does away with the obstacles or resources associated with the currently prevalent process of creating things. It allows anyone with an idea and a 3D printer to ‘print’ their exact ideas, test them out, create prototypes, or just use them directly. All you need to do is design the blueprint of your idea on your computer, and print it. It is, in a way, bringing about the “democratisation of production”. And in case designing the item is too much work for a consumer, he or she can just download a blueprint for their 3D printer from the internet.

But putting aside the happy idea of the food-printing machine from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it must be noted that with 3D printing, as with every other innovation, comes a dark side. While accessible 3D printing makes lives easier for consumers in general, it creates huge problems with regards to regulation of actions. For instance, while it is reasonably practical to control the sale of guns, how would you stop anyone from just printing out a gun from the microwave-sized 3D printer in their home?

The following are some of the areas 3D printing raises the most crucial concerns in, and some comments about its regulation.

  1. Intellectual Property

As mentioned earlier, anyone with a 3D printer can design any object they like, and print it. The problem that arises here is the fact that many ‘designs’ are copyrighted or patented. For instance, Marvel owns the copyright to the likeness of Iron Man. Thus, not only will widespread 3D printing of Iron Man merchandise cause quite noticeable losses to Marvel itself, it would also open up anyone who prints a likeness of Iron Man to a potential lawsuit by Marvel. The same logic also extends to patents. This issue is actually one of the major hurdles for home-based 3D printing. A detailed summary of these issues is available here.

  1. Personal and National Security Issues

The use of 3D printers in printing guns is already the subject of a lot of debate, and is already outlawed by the European Union and technically in the US. But the printing of potentially harmful items from 3D printers is not limited to guns alone. Case in point, currently under development is ‘chemputer’, a 3D printer that can print drugs. While the aim of the researcher is to allow people to print medicines at home, the other uses of such a printer are easy to imagine. Thus, the issue which then arises of the use of 3D printers to print things like ricin, military parts, ATM skimmers, or keys.

  1. Printing Illegal or Banned Objects

Drawing from the above point, a logical corollary is the use of 3D printers to print objects that may have been outlawed locally. The best examples of such objects would be banned drugs, such as cocaine, LSD, or MDMA and human organs. This relevance of this issue depends on the objects banned by the local laws.

  1. Bioprinting

As of right now, the research into bioprinting has already advanced well into what was till just recently considered science fiction, such as production of swatches of human skin, urethras for patients from their own cells, so on so forth. At the same time, some researchers are combining human and non-human tissue to create stronger organs. This gives rise to significant questions regarding ethics and responsibility – to quote Pete Basiliere, one of the authors of a very pertinent report released by Gartner, “What happens when complex enhanced organs involving nonhuman cells are made? Who will control the ability to produce them? Who will ensure the quality of the resulting organs?

  1. Product Mislabelling

Last but not the least, is the problem of intentionally and unintentionally mislabelled blueprints, i.e., ‘Product Mislabelling’. As anyone who has ever downloaded anything from the internet would know, the internet is awash with seemingly innocuous files that contain viruses or malware. Now imagine a similar issue with 3D printers – especially, 3D printers aimed at printing food items or medicines. The possible consequences are not pretty.

One of the notable suggestions regarding regulating 3D printers comes from Jonathan Zittrain, of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard. He suggests a method similar to the DRMs: 3D printers should be required to connect to the Internet and check with a ‘blacklist’ of designs before printing, showing an error message whenever asked to print an object that is on the list. While this suggestion is prima facie workable, the problem with this can be traced back to DRM – it doesn’t work. Just like there are ways around DRM, enterprising persons would inevitably find a way around the mandatory internet connection requirement.

Thus, as far as regulation of 3D printing is concerned, there are three major problems. One, the possible consequences of 3D printing that we can imagine right now are so numerous that it is not practically possible to regulate 3D printing in its entirety with just one regulation, since 3D printing is quite possibly one of the most pervasive technologies invented yet. And, two, we actually cannot predict all the consequences of 3D printing at this point of time. Thus, it is not practically possible to design a regulation that could cover all of the possible issues. More feasible would be amendment or creation sector-specific regulation to cover 3D printing.

But this brings us to the third point – there is always a gap between when technological innovation and regulation. Thus, most of the laws regulating 3D printing will inevitably come after the 3D printing has become commonplace. Yet, this does not mean that the sector specific regulations considered above would not be useful. In fact, I would argue that if this gap is kept in mind, the regulations might actually work better, if they leave room for a flexible, responsive legal system. However, such a system has its own problems, and is a topic worthy of a full separate post.

Thus, regulating 3D printers is not an easy task, and furthermore, it is not a task – it is a multifaceted puzzle. Every facet of this puzzle must be tackled separately and independently, every sector regulated separately. Crucially, though, this should not be done in a way that endangers the consumer-based innovation at the heart of 3D printing.

Before ending this post, it must be mentioned that as revolutionary as they are, 3D printers are currently too slow and too small for large-scale industrial processes, a fact that the American chain HomeDepot is relying on in its partnership with consumer-focused 3D printer MakerBot. Furthermore, most of the technologies mentioned in this post are still experimental, and it will take somewhere near a decade before they come into the hands of the consumers. Thus, the true potential of the 3D printing revolution is as yet unknown, and so is the degree to which this revolution needs to be regulated.

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