This article examines copyright’s applicability to 3D printing technology, by analyzing the facts surrounding the (formerly) proposed development of a fully 3D printable firearm. Critical to this analysis however, is an understanding of how copyright has traditionally protected intellectual property, and why 3D printers do not fit into this conventional framework. As 3D printing is advancing at an extraordinarily rapid rate, any discussion of this topic would be incomplete without reference to the “moving target” that is 3D printing technology. In the short time between when this article was initially submitted for evaluation to the PIPSELF Law Forum in December 2012, and when it will be published in May 2013, many new uses for 3D printing have already been demonstrated, and indeed some of the issues discussed in this article have already become outdated, all within a six month timespan.

This article discusses at length, the efforts of the Defense Distributed project to develop a 3D printable firearm. When the article was originally submitted in 2012, Defense Distributed had already managed to prove the feasibility of using 3D printed firearms components, but the gun utilizing the printed component promptly broke apart after only successfully firing 6 shots. However, in February 2013, Defense Distributed released a new video, demonstrating a redesigned 3D printed component that was successfully used to fire over 600 rounds without a structural failure. Other recent developments in 3D printing include a company whose goal is to produce 3D printable cultured leather and edible meat products.

Finally, in January 2013, the organization Public Knowledge released a whitepaper entitled “What's the Deal with Copyright and 3D Printing?” written by Michael Weinberg. As both the whitepaper and this article discuss the same basic principles, but do so by analyzing slightly different areas of the law, I view the whitepaper as a companion piece to this article.

UPDATE (5/5/13): Defense Distributed has completed (and successfully test fired) the world’s first entirely 3D printed pistol.

UPDATE (5/10/13): In the timespan of a single week after the release of the first 3D printed pistol, the U.S. State Department has initiated procedures to force Defense Distributed to remove all its 3D printable gun components from the Internet, with the State Department claiming it needs to review the files for compliance with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Further there are other measures being proposed by Congressman Steve Israel to outright ban 3D printed guns. However, considering that the 3D printable pistol was already downloaded over 100,000 times before the recent ITAR action, and the fact that the inherent design of the Internet means that many websites are foreign based, and therefore entirely outside the jurisdiction of the U.S., it appears to be an increasingly futile effort to force “removal” of these files from the Web. These files are still widely available on the Internet, and likely will continue to remain so, as websites like The Pirate Bay will continue to host & distribute 3D firearm files, regardless of any laws passed or litigation filed attempting to compel their removal.