As prices of 3-D printers continue to fall, experts are increasingly calling for reconsideration of copyright laws that protect the owners of patents and designs. However, they also warn that overreaching laws could stifle new ideas.
Very rapidly, 3-D printers have spread from scientific labs to industrial workshops to private homes.
The range of available machines is on display at 3D print shows, like one held last November in London - from sophisticated models that can print complex objects, such as replicas of human organs, to more affordable machines that make children’s toys or parts for home appliances.
A German firm recently displayed a prototype of a car chassis printed in one piece, while a Chinese manufacturer advertised a house created in a 3-D printer.
With the help of a computer, practically anyone can print exact copies of a variety of objects - and potentially violate the law.
“If a certain design that you want to print is covered by copyright, then if you print that you are infringing, arguably, someone's copyright," said Julie Samuels, a senior staff attorney with the U.S. civil liberties group, Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But 3-D companies warn that passing more restrictive copyright protection laws could impede both citizens’ rights and technological innovation.
Several decades ago, legislatures and the music industry were equally slow to adjust when suddenly anyone could copy music, first to magnetic and now electronic media.
But just as in the music industry, the founder of the website 3DPlus.me, Cydni Tetro, says she expects to see 3-D licenses very soon.
“All of those companies are in very active engagements right now about how they'll deploy 3-D printed products over the next year, and we're going to see that," said Tetro.
3-D printer designer Diego Porqueras says owners of 3-D printers and copyright owners should come to terms.
“If companies really take advantage of that and just charge nominal fees to download your favorite character off 'Star Wars' and 3-D print it, I think that's going to prevent a lot more piracy," said Porqueras.
The lack of legislation related to 3-D printing will hardly stop the technology from spreading, but experts say they hope the new laws will not punish people for printing a copy of something for their personal use.