3D printing law is a collective term for the areas of law that are likely to be impacted by the technology of the moment – 3D printing. Already 3D printers have been used to make customised prosthetic limbs, surgical implants, pills, machinery parts, weapons, replicas of museum specimens and artifacts. But what is 3D printing? And what areas of law are impacted by this technology? Is 3D printing illegal? What are the legal issues?

What is 3D printing?

3D printers are machines which can make different objects from digital files. They are able to create objects from all sorts of different materials e.g. plastic and pharmaceutical substances. The object that you wish to ‘print’ is designed using software on your computer. The 3D printing process then ‘slices’ the object into hundreds of layers which it ‘prints’ on top of each other to create the object.

So, it uses the same concept as printing ink on paper hence the name. The machinery itself is expensive but the idea is that as it develops it will become a cheaper form of manufacture that is highly customisation and refined in a manner that current forms of manufacture are not. There has even been a development of a 3D printer that can print another 3D printer.

3D Printing Law

Intellectual Property Issues

One of the key issues in this area is copyright and design rights. In order to print a 3D object, you need an electronic plan (or design) of the object and a 3D printer, which means anyone with these tools can produce exact copies of an object. This might create a flourishing black market of essentially counterfeited items which would jeopardise many people’s intellectual property rights. Additionally, the use of 3D printers could also severely erode the monopoly of patent holders.

3D printing poses a real threat to intellectual property owners

Product liability

3D printing has already been used to make guns. What happens if a private citizen downloads a design file for the gun, prints it, and fires it and the gun misfires due to mechanical problems and the user is harmed in the process. Who is liable for this product defect? The electronic design distributor? The maker of the printer? Do consumer protection principles apply or does there need to be 3D printing law for  product liability? The position is not clear at this time.

You could be liable for something you print

Investment impact

Small businesses and startups that are looking for investment in a product can use 3D printers to produce replicas of their product. These replicas can be extremely accurate and enable investors to see what they are going to invest in. This ability means that the risk of investment is decreased- fail fast, fail cheap.

This change in investment rate and confidence in small businesses is likely to have significant legal consequences and add a company law and joint venture agreement element to 3D printing law. These increased investment opportunities could be enormously important for the economies of developing countries such as South Africa.

3D printing offers innovative investment opportunity

Many Legal Issues will need to be Resolved

3D printing offers a wealth of innovation and opportunity but at the same time as with so many technological advancements, the law is unprepared for its effects in its current format. So, 3D printing itself is not illegal but some of its consequences might be especially in terms of intellectual property law.  It remains to be seen what approach the 3D printing law will take. In the meantime, technology law specialists are best placed to guide you through 3D printing law.


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