Monday, April 29, 2019

EU Regulation of 3D Printing - Push the Print Button but Do Not Push The Boundaries

By Evisa Kambellari

Three Dimensional Printing is a process by which digital files are turned into physical objects by laying down successive layers of additive manufacturing material such as plastic, metal, carbon fibers, nylon, or liquids. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, turns a digital blueprint created on a computer or with a 3D scanner into an object. There is a broad spectrum of  3D printing applications, including, but not limited to medicine, aircraft and automobile industries, custom art and design, clothing, soft food industry, education and research.

A recent European Parliament’s resolution on three-dimensional printing highlights that the market for 3D printers constitutes a sector which is experiencing rapid growth and application of this technology offers new opportunities for business development and innovation. However, it also opens new legal and ethical challenges in the fields of intellectual property rights and civil liability, image rights and the right to privacy.

The EU resolution on 3D printing also notes that 3D-printing technology may raise security and especially cyber-security concerns, particularly with regard to the manufacturing of weapons, explosives and drugs and any other hazardous objects, and that particular care should be taken with regard to production of that kind.

A photo of a 3D printer in action. It shows a purple rectangular object being printed inside of a glass box, on top of a glass plate.
A 3D printer in action. Photo by the author.
Intellectual property. A 3D scanner creates a three-dimensional design by scanning an object and automatically converting its measurements into a digital format, generally known as a CAD file. The digital reproduction of a copyright protected object constitutes unauthorized copy of the product, and therefore, is subject to the existing EU legislation governing enforcement of intellectual property rights. Under Directive 2004/48/EC on the enforcement of intellectual property rights, the IP enforcement measures need to be applied only in the case of acts carried out on a commercial scale for the purpose of gaining benefits. In addition, the EU Directive 98/71/EC provides that reproduction of a design is legal if it is done for private and non-commercial use, e.g. for research or teaching. Thus, domestic 3D printing of various copyright protected items done solely for private use seems to not be targeted by the provisions of the EU intellectual property legislation. However, it is worth mentioning that domestic reproduction of IP protected items might adversely affect original designers since, in purely economic terms, it means losing a potential buyer.

Privacy rights. Additive manufacturing techniques are widely used in medicine to scan the human body and use the digital model of the body parts to create prosthetics and implants. Moreover, 3D scanners are capable of capturing body shapes, skin colors and textures, and are used in the digital models in the 3D printing of miniature figurines or creation of adult toys.  However, if personal data obtained by 3D technologies is used without a person’s consent, or for commercial benefits, the user may face liability under the torts of misappropriation of name or likeness, or disclosure of personal information. This is especially true in the case of reproducing the image of a person to make money from the commercial use of that person’s identity. The EU resolution on 3D printing notes that use of 3D scanning of people and printing of digital files can affect image rights and the right to privacy.

Security. Three-dimensional printing technologies may be exploited by criminals for creating homemade weapons or making components to be used for reactivating firearms. Controlling of acquisition and possession of 3D-printed guns is very problematic because they cannot be traced due to lack of serial numbers. The EU main legislative framework on firearms consists of Regulation 258/2012 establishing export authorization, and import and transit measures for firearms and Directive 91/477/EEC on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons (as amended by  Directive 2017/853). Under the Directive, the manufacturing of firearms, as well as acts acquisition or possession of firearms, are controlled activities carried out under the supervision of national enforcement authorities. Therefore, the manufacturing of 3D guns without government approval is already banned by the Directive because it bans all types of uncontrolled manufacturing, regardless of method. In regards to the application of regulations on export/import of firearms to 3D-printed gun-related activities, it makes sense to consider them as subject to the related control lists. So, if a firearm produced using a 3D-printing technology meets the characteristics of a certain controlled category under the Common Military List of the European Union, it could be subject of the firearms’ export/import lists.

One of the most controversial issues regarding 3D printing technology is the online distribution or selling of the digital files of 3D guns blueprints. Such digital files can fall under the definition of “technical data,” for the production of a controlled weapon, as regulated by the EU Common Military List. According to this list, “technical data” may consist of: blueprints, plans, diagrams, models, formulae, tables, engineering designs and specifications, manuals and instructions written or recorded on other media or devices such as disk, tape, read only memories. In this regard, distribution of 3D gun blueprints via the Internet may constitute illegal export/import of military technical data, and as such, is banned by the related export legislation. However, the EU Common Military list applies only to the export/import of technical data used for production of firearms, but not to the mere possession of such data. Therefore, there are still issues that remain unaddressed in the EU legislation in relation to access and possession of 3D-printed gun technology.

Existing EU legislation recognizes the implications that 3D printing technologies can have on copyright and patent law, privacy law and safety regulations. However, legislation that specifically regulates use of 3D printing in the respective areas is missing. The idea of describing allowed uses of 3D technologies by specific regulation seems not to be the most appropriate course of action due to the negative impact it can have on innovation. Such a concern is mentioned even in the most recent piece of EU legislation in the area of copyright law. Thus, the newly proposed Directive on “Copyright in the Digital Single Market” emphasizes that “relevant legislation needs to be future-proof so as not to restrict technological development.” More efficient results can be reached by a public-private partnership to control the online sharing of 3D printing files. Even though the government cannot completely prohibit the sharing due to its interference with one’s freedom of speech, nothing prohibits social networking companies to prohibit such a sharing as a violation of their platform policies.


European Parliament resolution of 3 July 2018 on three-dimensional printing, a challenge in the fields of intellectual property rights and civil liability.

Directive 98/71/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of of 13 October 1998
on the legal protection of designs.

Directive 2004/48/EC  of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the enforcement of intellectual property rights.

Directive (EU) No. 2015/2436 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2015 to approximate the laws of the Member States relating to trade marks.

Briefing of EU Legislation in Progress on Control of the acquisition and possession of weapons, June 2017.


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