Ask Dr. Copyright

copyright question

Dear Doc:

I heard that computers can now print in “3D”, and make things out of plastic, metal and ceramic, and that there are websites that offer designs for guns and gun parts that can be downloaded for free, and then printed on these new printers. I even saw an episode of NCIS where the terrorists used plastic 3D printed guns that could not be detected by metal detectors. Shouldn’t the government clamp down on these things?

John Q. Luddite

Dear Lud:

Yes! It’s completely true! It’s alarming! It’s terrifying! It is possible to buy a 3D printer, such as a “MakerBot” or even a commercial one, download the designs for a gun, print it out, and use it. Law enforcement agencies are concerned. As with any new technology, however, the scary and dangerous uses are getting most of the press, while the kind and valuable uses are not covered as much.

Michael Balzer, has a 3D design business that used these new printers.  His wife developed a tumor just behind her eye that could have taken her sight. She had an MRI, and Balzer used his 3D skills to convert that image into a 3D model that helped her surgeons plan a new approach to what would otherwise have been a difficult and dangerous operation. His wife is now fine, and her sight was saved. Doctors project that this use of 3D printing will become more common in the near future, as we print models of bones, organs, and other body parts to plan treatment.
Doctors are also using 3D printing to print prosthetic body parts. A doctor at Johns Hopkins University recently gave a new hand to a fourth grade teacher after the students in her school wrote to him to ask that he help. The entire school went to Baltimore to visit the Hopkins Medical School, and to see their teacher get her new hand.

Other uses may be equally creative. Jay Leno, the former host of the “Tonight” Show, collects old cars. Sometimes, it’s impossible to get parts for them. So Jay 3D prints them, right in his own garage.

What does this have to do with copyright? Well, Lud, those 3D designs are protectable by copyright, but are also considered “speech” and are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. That’s why the government can’t just “clamp down” on the web sites offering gun parts. In our legal system, in order to have important rights, we sometimes have to take the good with the bad. We can’t just limit what people publish on the Internet to the stuff we like. It’s just a part of our democratic system.

Have questions about copyright and cutting edge technologies? Give the attorneys at LW&H a call, Skype, email, tweet, or any other kind of shout. They do this stuff.

Until next month,

The “Doc”

— Lawrence Husick, Esq.