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3D Printing: New Horizons

by on November 14, 2014

When adding 3D printing to libraries, a number of considerations come up, several of which involve legal issues. To assist with developing best practices and policies, the American Library Association has begun releasing tip sheets on the topic. The debut post is called, “Progress in the Making: An Introduction to 3D Printing and Public Policy.”

With so many possibilities for 3D printing, the excitement is quickly building. New businesses are opening and creating innovative new products that are changing lives in ways that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. Just as libraries have always been about providing access to new information and resources, they continue this mission by providing this new technology. The variety of filaments that can be used in these machines is growing, but currently the most commonly used are plastic, usually PLA (poly lactic acid) or ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). However, some printers have been created that can print with food or cellular material.[i]

One of the larger considerations for 3D printing involves intellectual property. This concept is nothing new for libraries, and copyright is something we have had to think about for years, posting signs by our copiers and music collections. However, with creation of content and objects, we must begin to think beyond copyright, and move into the world of patents and trade secrets.[ii]

Further legal considerations involve liability. The tip sheet mentions liability that stems from the actual products that are created using the 3D printer.[iii] Beyond that, libraries will also want to mull over any liability issues from having the machines themselves and the possible dangers that can arise simply from machines whose parts can heat to over 200 degrees.

Then you have intellectual freedom. Libraries are champions of providing information and access to everyone. However, when possible public safety issues, like with 3D printed weaponry, where do our responsibilities lie? The ALA tip sheet also discusses the use of this technology as a way to create pharmaceuticals, and how that same use could spread to illegal drug production.[iv]

These legal matters can be intimidating. The great part is that many libraries have begun this journey and have started thinking about these issues. Warning notices regarding copyright have been created, such as the one at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (available via the link). User agreements and liability waivers have been written with the assistance of legal counsel, like the one from the  Fayetteville Free Library.

Overall, can 3D printing present some daunting issues? Yes. However, the wonderful implications of this technology far outweigh the effort of overcoming the obstacles. 3D printers aren’t the first new product libraries have offered, nor will they be the last. Here’s to being brave new librarians!

Works Cited

[i] United For Libraries, Public Library Association, and ALA’s Office of Info Tech Policy. “American Library Association.” Progress in the Making: An Introduction to 3D Printing and Public Policy. September 2014. (accessed October 13, 2014).


[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

Cover Image CreditChris McKenna

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