The Legal Liability of 3D Printing

By Kalani Kirk Hausman, Richard Horne

Currently, individuals can still use 3D printing to make items for their own use without having to retain a lawyer and pay for a full search of all IP registrations to identify potential conflicts. This is true of patented designs.

You can write your own operating system, which can look like a commercial design as long as you do not distribute it to others or you can duplicate the trademarked shape of protected soda bottles for your personal use at home.

So, now that an individual without significant design skills can create at home a look-alike replacement component for an older car that might still be protected intellectual property, there’s potential IP trouble.

The legal system is trying to come to terms with how to protect the designers’ right to make a profit from their designs and individuals’ right to make their own personal items without an impossible level of cost and legal review. The same applies to potentially dangerous tool and weapon designs. The question is when personal use becomes something more.

If a component or other product fails to function properly, often the result is recalls and replacements in the world of traditional manufacturing. Consumers who create exact copies of such items may have unwittingly taken on the liability for any damage or harm resulting from their use.

If you use a 3D-printed vacuum cleaner in the next few years, produced at a local fabrication site of the sort that UPS envisions, and the handle fails and causes injury, where does the legal liability lie?

Is it the original designer’s fault? Is it the fault of the manufacturer who might have employed different materials? Is it the fault of the owner who paid for the replacement part, who might not even have known it was not an official factory-manufactured replacement?

Our traditional insurance policies and other legal factors of liability will need to be updated in the years ahead to reflect the amazing innovations that are before us.