Nora Freeman Engstrom, Associate Professor of Law at Stanford has published a paper in which she examines some aspects of the legal implications of 3D printing. Many of us have been concerned about what may happen, but she states the problem eloquently:
Following any signiﬁcant technological breakthrough, legal scholars, practitioners, and policymakers must consider how the innovation meshes with—or poses challenges to—our existing laws and system of governance. Will it ﬁt? What must change? Where are the pitfalls and opportunities? 3-D printing is no exception. The laws it implicates are numerous, and the challenges it poses are profound.
Engstrom examines one particular problem in the space, namely that of product liability. The gist of the existing law is that those who engage in selling defective products are liable for any carnage that may result. Does this apply to 3D printed models that might be sold by owners of personal 3D printers? She says:
… even assuming that the product is unambiguously defective, a plaintiff will have trouble prevailing in a PL (product liability) action against any one of these three possible defendants (printer operator, printer manufacturer, 3D model designer).
This is not what you might have thought. The rationale for her conclusions are:
- The law applies to those who are truly commercial sellers; most personal 3D printer situations are likely to be small time operations that would not qualify
- The printer manufacturer would be liable only if the printer itself was defective, which would not be the case here
- The designer would not be liable as the model is just information, not a product itself. Additionally the designer many not be a commercial seller
Thus there may be fewer liability lawsuits than expected. This, while bad news for those damaged by defective 3D prints, is good news for the 3D print industry. Consumers will not be deterred by fear of lawsuits and they’ll end up buying more 3D printers.