News & Stories

Exploring the legal and ethical landscape of 3D technology

3D printing has captured the imagination of the public. But is it safe? Are there legal, intellectual property or safety concerns?

Dr Jane Nielsen has a background in intellectual property and competition law issues in biotechnology, and is now examining material transfers in biomedical research. Dr Nielsen also looks at infringement and enforcement issues surrounding intellectual property, and in the case of 3D printing, she says “there are layers of potential liability”.

“If someone prints out an object at home, or takes an object or software to a 3D printing bureau for copying, for example, they may be unconsciously infringing intellectual property laws such as copyright, patent law or design law,” she said.

The (3D printing) technology is becoming more accessible all the time. Another issue we are interested in is bio-printing of body parts, and I’m working with other researchers at the University of Tasmania who are looking at the ethical implications of that,

Dr Nielsen said.

The real issue with 3D printing in the biomedical area is that none of the issues have really been contemplated.

“3D technology is moving quickly, but the related legal and ethical landscapes are playing  catch-up."

Not many legal academics are currently looking at this area, but it’s an untapped minefield.

“We have a small group looking at these issues  and are in the process of writing up a study and associated publications. We also have a research project with associates from Swinburne University and Bournemouth University (UK), which involves a survey of the public. This is aimed at gaining an understanding of their views about 3D printing, the technology and its uses. We want to explore whether people have concerns about 3D printing technology and how it might impact on  them.

This will help us gain an understanding of whether people are knowingly or inadvertently infringing intellectual property laws, or whether they are printing out objects and using them without an understanding of the safety issues that might be involved,

“At some point there will be recognition of the policy implications of 3D printing as there have been in genetics, and in other areas involving file sharing, (such as music). 3D printing issues are similar and there will of course be aspects unique to this particular  technology.”

The University of Tasmania provides the ideal environment in which to carry out her research.

Dr Nielsen

“I work closely with Professor Dianne Nicol who is the Director of the Centre for Law and Genetics (CLG). The CLG has an international reputation for its research into the legal and ethical issues associated with the commercialisation of genetic technologies. It also has strong affiliations with a number of other institutions and with other researchers at the University of Tasmania, particularly within the Faculty of Arts and the Menzies Research Institute.”

In the future I’d like to look even more closely at bio- printing issues. I’m currently doing some work in this area with a colleague from Bournemouth. My colleagues and I would also like to extend our work more into the consumer law area.

Jane Nielsen is an Associate Investigator with the Ethics, Public Policy and Engagement node of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science. This research was funded by a University of Tasmania REGS Grant (N0021974).

Find out more about becoming a research student.