3D Printing – The New Legal Frontier

In 2012 I decided I needed to learn everything there was to learn about 3D printing.  At first, it seemed like a cute hobby to make toys for your kids, but I knew there were much larger implications, even when my peers told me I was barking up the wrong tree.

Suddenly people were printing firearms. I commonly refer to this as the “burner gun” because it is similar to the “burner cell phones” criminals can use and not be traced.  Not one printed gun will have a serial number on it, which is something that seems like would upset law enforcement and politicians.

Today, a new legal aspect of 3D printing came to light in the form of copyright protection and abuse in a daily Slashdot article:

Stratasys, one of the world's biggest 3D printer manufacturers, routinely uses 3D-printed objects as displays for its booths at trade shows. The problem: It's been using objects designed by popular designer Asher Nahmias, whose creations are licensed under a noncommercial Creative Commons license — and he says Stratasys's use violates the licensing terms.

The article basically claims that the objects printed out on a 3D printer can be copyrighted just as a piece of paper you may copy.  It goes on to talk about allegations towards a company that uses works from others to merely demonstrate their 3D printers’ capabilities, something that would seem very harmless if they are not selling the prints for profit.

I think the point that is missing  is that 3D printing is here to stay, and we need to know how to deal with it legally and technically through computer forensics.  In the not-so-distant future someone may ask you “Did Bob print our prototype and leave the building?” just like you already hear “Did Bob copy all our important files onto his thumb drive and leave the building?”

Computer forensics can, and will, catch up.  The question is  "When?"  3D printers are still looked at as a tool for hobbyists and toy makers.  A computer forensic examiner, on the other hand, is going to be looking for when, how, and who printed the plastic gun that killed an innocent victim.  Our initial research shows it can be done, and I believe there is a positive future concerning real computer forensics when it comes to 3D printing that the “press this button and see your evidence” software you buy off the shelf will not be able to easily address.  It will take real experts with low level programming experience combined with hardware experience to develop the computer forensic methodologies in order to examine the whole subject of 3D printers in the years to come.