Additive manufacturing, also commonly known as 3D Printing is at the forefront of a resurgence in smaller scale manufacturing. It has created new and exciting opportunities but has it also created novel challenges for legal liability and intellectual property rights?

The coming of the digital age also raised novel challenges in the legal landscape in areas such as intellectual property, privacy and defamation. For many, the legislation felt like it was behind the curve and unable to fully respond to new technology and new practices at the frontier of the digital space.

Not wanting to be caught flat-footed and recognising the importance of the 3D Printing industry, the European parliament has recently adopted a resolution that stresses the need to anticipate whether this burgeoning technology will be problematic as regards civil liability (in areas such as product liability and the protection of consumers) or intellectual property such as the enablement of counterfeiting/piracy. The resolution calls on the European Commission to consider whether the current laws are sufficient to deal with issues that arise as a result of the additive manufacturing industry whilst at the same time cautioning against unnecessary duplication of existing rules and laws. One question that arises is whether or not a specific regime needs to be implemented as a legal framework for 3D printing.

To highlight one area – product liability – the current consumer protection regime places responsibility for a defective product at the door of the producer or supplier. There is a question mark over how those concepts translate when the supply chain in additive manufacturing may variously involve:

  • The designer who produced the blueprint or digital file of an object;
  • The manufacturer of the 3D printer and printing substrate;
  • The operator of a fab lab (fabrication laboratory);
  • The creator of the object;
  • The seller of the object.

How will domestic courts respond in the absence of European Legislation either because it has not been enacted or as part of a post Brexit legal landscape? What will be the national legislature’s response to the Additive Manufacturing National Strategy 2018-2025 published nearly a year ago?

Luckily we are a nation with robust Judges replete with common sense who will no doubt rise to the challenge of applying existing laws to any novel issues raised by 3D Printing.

However, as the technological developments permeate everyday life more and more so this disruptive technology may lead to interesting times with innovation and a positive economic impact for some. The world of unregulated ‘disruptive technologies’ does not always bring unbridled joy (e.g Uber, Airbnb, Bitcoin). Here the issue is whether the regulation in place is sufficient to keep pace with the industry. A side effect could well be fascinating legal arguments for product liability and intellectual property lawyers to sink their teeth into. Luckily “may you live in interesting times” is only apocryphally a Chinese curse and small and medium enterprises can look forward to moving in this exciting commercial space concentrating on furthering new business opportunities regardless of any potential legal sticky patches. For the moment it is simply a case of watch this space.