The Gift and the Curse of 3D Printing and the Legislation We Ca

  • This past week saw the the limited release of adidas' newest sneaker. The German sportswear giant partnered with Parley for the Oceans, a nonprofit that fights ocean plastic waste, to develop the shoe, which utilized reclaimed plastic gill nets and other ocean plastic waste, additive manufacturing, or what is better known as 3D printing.

    The two companies worked with suppliers to develop a process for cleaning the nets, and then borrowed a technique used in the furniture industry — called tailored fiber placement — to knit the fibers together. In the final shoe, the ocean plastic is white, and the green threads are made from gill nets. (The soles are made with conventional materials.) And this is just the beginning. According to a statement from adidas, it is planning to scale up the use of ocean plastic and 3D printing in other products, beginning with a large footwear collection this fall, and following that with apparel, such as football jerseys, beginning in 2017.

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    While 3D printing – the utilization of various processes to synthesize a three-dimensional object – is largely quite novel in the realm of fashion, it has been a growing focus in the legal field for a while now. Much of the focus remains on product liability and intellectual property (“IP”) issues, as due to the very nature of additive manufacturing, users and makers of 3D printers will inevitably encounter issues involving their own patents, trademarks, trade dress, trade secrets, and copyrights, and those of others. However, as with any new technology, many of the rules affecting the 3D printing industry will be decided in Congress and administrative agencies rather than in courtrooms.

    To date, 3D printing has been a largely unregulated practice, save for a few exceptions, such as when it involves guns or pharmaceuticals. However, as the technology becomes more mainstream, this is likely to change quite significantly, with regulation becoming far more expansive. In fact, given the wide array of the possibilities associated with 3D printing, which range the creation of sneakers to the possibility to 3D printing food and pharmaceuticals, this practice will certainly fall under the jurisdiction of a large number of Congressional committees and administrative agencies, including but not limited to the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, among many others. International law doctrines and trade agreements will almost certainly come into play, as well.

    Intellectual property law is one of the most commonly cited sects of law in connection with the rise of 3d printing, as anyone who owns rights in product designs stands to be be affected by the capabilities of this technology. The Gartner Group, an American research and advisory firm providing information technology related insight, predicts that “by 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in intellectual property globally.” As such, existing IP legislation will need to interpreted by courts in terms of how it applies in connection with 3D printing.

    But what about government regulators, who will also likely be challenged. According to IP Watch: Food and Drug Administration regulators will be faced with approving countless 3D printed medical devices, drugs, and human organs. In the US, doctors who 3D printed the trachea splints that saved several newborn babies sought and obtained emergency clearances from the US Food and Drug Administration.

    Aircraft regulators will face similar issues with 3D printed aircraft parts. Consumer products regulators will grapple with the safety of products made by way of 3D printing. And using 3D printing for new kinds of crime will challenge the law enforcement, investigation, intelligence, military, national security, and criminal justice systems, and inter-country relations, and lead to calls for new laws to address these challenges.

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