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3D Printers – A New Can of Worms?

by on August 6, 2013

A new trend in libraries (with funding) is the Makerspaces that come complete with 3D printers. In case you haven’t heard, a 3D printer is a machine that engages in the process of making a solid three-dimensional object of virtually any shape from a digital model. In other words, have a digitized plan and the 3D printer can make it a solid reality.[i] The process is a relatively simple concept in which successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes to make the aggregate whole.  This procedure  has been used in manufacturing and design areas for a while. It is now coming of age in the fields of medicine, and yes, libraries.

A 3D printer can actually be purchased fairly inexpensively– for what it is. A quick online search shows that one could be bought for between $1,200.00 and $3,000.00 dollars.  The Westport (Connecticut) Library, actually has two. After training, residents can use the printer for free, while others are charged a nominal fee.[ii]

On the surface, this may seem like an interesting new direction for the public library. Who wouldn’t want to be able to see their ideas develop into something tangible before them? It is understandable to me that libraries would find this an appealing service to offer. However, I fear it is a path that is not fully thought through. After my initial exclamation, “How cool is that?” I began to consider the implications of having such a printer in a public library. I had an intuitive sense that this was a can of worms, but not any idea why. Clearly, it’s an expensive item should someone break it. Is there a maintenance contract? If something goes wrong it’s a far bigger issue than a paper jam. Though I suppose if one can afford to purchase the machine, the rest will fall into place.

As time has gone on, it appears that public use of a library’s3D printer comes with several other concerns. Librarians should have seen this coming. (Though I admit, it didn’t cross my mind.) Like paper printers there is the problem of copyright and in this case, also patent infringement.  Just because we can make something, or in this case, a copy of something, doesn’t mean we should. Like with the music industry this infringement has potential to not only include intellectual and creative property, but the extended concerns for file sharing and other forms of copying. [iii] The number of possible legal issues on this front alone could allow for the development of  a journal on the topic.

But there’s more to be concerned with. Problems have arisen not only with the legality of making the object, but with the objects being made. Among other things, it is a relatively simple and quick process to fabricate a complete working gun with no metal parts.[iv] The implications of this ability are frightening. What will all this mean for public libraries that have or get a 3D printer? Will there be additional insurance costs? By this I’m no longer thinking of the costs of protecting the equipment, but of protecting the library from any misdeeds that might be perpetrated by the person using the machine. If a patron uses the library’s printer to print a weapon and then uses it in a crime, does the library have any liability? How can we regulate users and not be discriminatory? And what of manufacturers who may wish to hold someone responsible for counterfeit items, sharing of design features, etc. We are, after all, just coming out of the smartphone design legal wars.[v]

As a public library, if you choose not offer this new device, it may not concern your patrons.  Apparently it is fast on its way to becoming available to home consumers.[vi]

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