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IP, Law Enforcement, and 3D Printing: Interview with John Hornick

IP, Law Enforcement, and 3D Printing: Interview with John Hornick

 John F. Hornick [Image via LinkedIn]

John F. Hornick [Image via LinkedIn]

Understanding the capabilities and legalities of 3D printing is a complex undertaking: lawyer John F. Hornick weighs in on today’s realities.

Hornick, currently Senior Counsel at intellectual property (IP) firm Finnegan, has built upon his IP expertise to encompass 3D printing. His wide-ranging activities in the industry include authoring a book, speaking at 3D printing and legal events, industry analysis, and now teaching. Hornick founded the 3D printing working group at Finnegan in 2014, but as he looks toward his upcoming retirement from legal practice, has passed the reins of leadership to Elizabeth (Beth) D. Ferrill.

I caught up with Hornick to discuss his background in IP and 3D printing, as well as a look ahead to his newer endeavors in educating the law enforcement community.

How did you first become involved in the legalities of 3D printing?

“I was fascinated by the technology and started researching it. I saw some articles saying that 3D printing presents important IP issues, but the articles never said what the issues are. Being an IP attorney, I decided to figure out what those issues are. This led me to start writing and speaking on the intersection of IP law and 3D printing. Also, my law firm, Finnegan, which is one of the largest IP firms in the world, had been doing work for clients in the 3D printing industry for many years, but our practice was spread over many technical areas, like mechanical arts and materials science. I formalized our practice and created a 3D Printing practice group.”

What inspired you to write your book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World? How has it been received?

“From the beginning, my interest in 3D printing went far beyond IP law, and I closely followed the industry, so I started building a database to keep track of what was happening. At some point I realized I had enough information for a book, and by then I had developed ideas about how 3D printing would affect design, manufacturing, supply chains, and even education, so I wrote 3D Printing Will Rock the World. It has done very well and won some awards, including a Silver Award from the Nonfiction Authors Association.”

Following your retirement from the practice of law, how will you stay active in the 3D printing industry?

“I will be retired from practicing law by the end of 2019. I practiced IP law for over 30 years, but always wondered what I wanted to be when I grow up. About a year ago I started getting some opportunities to use my knowledge of the 3D printing industry without practicing law. For example, the market research company SmarTech recently asked me to write a series of reports on the patent landscape in the 3D printing industry, starting with metals. These reports are about who owns patents, with no legal judgments. Also, the City of London Police asked me to do a presentation on the risks and benefits of 3D printing for law enforcement, which led me to start writing and speaking on this topic, and to develop online courses for a platform called Law Enforcement Learning, to educate the law enforcement community about how 3D printing can be used to make weapons, and about how the technology can be used to help solve crimes.”

Why does it benefit the law enforcement community to understand the risks and benefits of 3D printing?

“Many people outside the 3D printing industry believe the main use of 3D printers is to print Yoda heads. They have little idea of the incredible power of the technology, and of the range of equipment currently available, especially on the industrial side. But as is true of many technologies, it can also be used by bad guys. The law enforcement community needs to know how 3D printing has already been used to make weapons, that the digital blueprints for weapons can easily be shared online or peer-to-peer, and that because 3D printing breaks design barriers of traditional manufacturing, 3D printed weapons need not look anything like we expect them to look.

I recently did a webinar for the University of Illinois Champagne Urbana called ‘Misinformation, Panic, and 3D Printed Guns’ because there is also a lot of misinformation about 3D printed guns. For example, Cody Wilson’s Liberator is only a drop in the bucket that many others have been filling with 3D printed guns, ammunition, and accessories since 2012. The law enforcement community needs accurate information, not misinformation. It needs to know what has already been done and what is possible, using 3D printing. It also needs to know that 3D printing can and has been used to solve crimes, and how law enforcement agencies around the world are increasingly using the technology.”

How do you approach courses in 3D printing for law enforcement?

“I have created two courses so far. The first, ‘3D Printing 101 for Law Enforcement,’ covers the basics of 3D printing on both the consumer side and the industrial side of the industry, and an overview of the risks of 3D printing for law enforcement and the ways 3D printing can be used to aid law enforcement.

The second course, ‘3D Printed Weapons,’ provides details on weapons 3D printed to date, from the single-shot ‘Liberator,’ made by a Material Extrusion machine, to the U.S. Army’s 3D printed grenade launcher and grenades, made by Powder Bed Fusion. The course also covers 3D printed ammunition and accessories, such as suppressors, bump-fire stocks, and high-capacity magazines, and legislation relating to 3D printed weapons.

I am working on a third course, ‘3D Printing to Solve Crimes,’ which covers the uses of 3D printed models to reconstruct crime scenes, perform forensic investigations, and obtain convictions in the courtroom.

As you know, I am a big supporter of the incredible potential of 3D printing to transform economies and create jobs. So that my law enforcement courses don't alarm people and create bad press for the 3D printing industry, the courses are not available to the general public. You need to have a badge to take them.”

Given the media attention and misinformation surrounding the 3D printing of weapons, what do you consider the biggest concerns for law enforcement gaining a realistic understanding of the capabilities of 3D printing today and in the future?

“Several important points jump to mind. First, in the U.S. it is not illegal to make guns at home by traditional means, as long as they are detectable. So the law enforcement community needs to understand that there is a difference between 3D printing a weapon, which in most places in the U.S. is legal, and using it to commit a crime.

Second, it is important for the law enforcement community to understand the state of the art of 3D printed weapons and how it is evolving. Some sophisticated guns and accessories have been 3D printed since Cody Wilson's Liberator, but they get little media attention. Although 3D printed guns have been seized in police raids, I am not aware of any 3D printed weapon being used to commit a crime, yet. But it is probably only a matter of time before it happens. And 3D printing better and better weapons will be possible as the technology improves, machine prices drop, and industrial 3D printing technology trickles down to the consumer side of the industry.

Third, it is important for law enforcement to understand that digital blueprints are the key to 3D printing a weapon, or anything else for that matter, and the ways that such blueprints can be created, tweaked, obtained, and shared.

Fourth, because of the power of the technology and the ease of creating or obtaining digital blueprints, anyone who wants to 3D print a weapon can do so away from control, regardless of what laws may be enacted or are already on the books. ‘Away from control’ is a concept I have written and spoken about extensively, including in my YouTube videos. It means the ability to 3D print things, including guns, without anyone knowing about it and without anyone being able to control it. In this context, the law enforcement community needs to understand what types of laws relating to 3D printed weapons make sense, and which one don't, and that weapons will be 3D printed away from control regardless of such laws.”

How does your legal background inform your approach to community education?

“Wearing my teaching hat, I am not offering legal advice. But my legal training enables me to avoid hype and misinformation. For example, after a Seattle federal court recently enjoined the U.S. State Department from allowing Cody Wilson's nonprofit, Defense Distributed, from re-posting certain weapons digital blueprints for sale on its website, some media misreported that Wilson continued to sell the blueprints by mail, in violation of the injunction. It is true that Wilson was selling the blueprints by mail, but incorrect that doing so violates the court order. If you read the order, it clearly says that he can sell the blueprints by mail, but not over the Internet. The law enforcement community needs accurate information, which my legal training enables me to provide.”

What else should we know about 3D printing as it relates to law enforcement and your upcoming endeavors?

“I expect to continue to be involved in the 3D printing industry in various ways, but I am being very selective about the projects I accept. I am not trying to compete with the top consultants in this space, like Terry Wohlers and Todd Grimm. But I am especially excited about educating the law enforcement community about this technology. I see it as a way to perform a public service while talking about a topic that I love.”


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