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3D Printing: Potential Pitfalls For Retailers

What is 3D printing?

3D printing, a seemingly futuristic method of manufacturing objects, is steadily moving into the mainstream as three dimensional printers have relocated from labs to the shelves of retail stores.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a method of production where small machines –robots – build three-dimensional objects layer by layer, directed by computer-assisted design (CAD) software, until the entire object is finished.  3D printers are used to build a host of materials, from the mundane – children’s toys or jewelry, to the useful – parts for your toaster or washing machine, and even the highly controversial, such as the functional guns made by 3D printers that have been profiled in the New York Times and the subject of recent television crime shows.

How is 3D printing currently being used in retail?

3D printers have been used commercially for decades, for example to produce prototypes in manufacturing.  Now, producers such as MakerBot have lowered the price point of 3D printers so they are accessible to the general public, and are being sold for use in homes and schools.

Established online 3D printing companies include Thingiverse, a MakerBot-affiliated website that people use to share designs, and Shapeways, which provides 3D printing services as well as an Etsy-like marketplace, which provides a place for all designers to sell the objects that Shapeways prints from their plans to the general public.  Now, major retailers such as UPS and Staples are creating brick-and-mortar locations for 3D printing.  UPS Stores throughout the United States are now offering 3D printing services where customers bring a CAD file, as well as selling printers to manufacture customers’ designs.  Staples, meanwhile, has partnered with a German 3D print retailer at a store in Hamburg to provide live demonstrations that will hopefully educate and entice customers to purchase 3D printers.

Intellectual Property and Liability Concerns with Retail 3D Printing

As with many new technologies, the rise of 3D printing triggers a host of intellectual property and liability concerns.  These concerns are most evident for retailers who are contemplating providing new 3D printing technology in their stores.  For example, it is entirely possible that a customer may bring a 3D design of a copyrighted object for printing at a retail 3D print shop.  If retailers facilitate the printing of copyrighted materials, they may expose themselves to liability and a potential lawsuit from a copyright owner for assisting in a customer’s copyright infringement.  (We note that although the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which updated U.S. copyright law to conform U.S. law to the requirements of the World Intellectual Property Organization and address other copyright concerns in the digital age, apply to website providers, those protections do not currently apply to retailers who facilitate copyright violations at physical retail locations.)  Similarly, customers may request printing of patent-protected materials, and retailers who print such objects may be deemed to contribute to patent infringement.

3D printing also raises potential products liability concerns.  For example, if objects designed by customers and produced by retailers ultimately cause harm to an end user – which can include the obvious, like a functional gun, as well as harder-to-predict defective toy, then retailers who provide 3D printing services can potentially be liable for those harms, even if the retailers did not directly contribute to the alleged defect.

Given the host of potential liability that can arise from providing 3D printing services, retailers considering delving into the new world of 3D-based additive manufacturing should discuss their plans and the associated risks with counsel.

Related topics: Intellectual Property, Liability, Retail, Technology