Is 3d-printing the new ADSL? History repeating

Euractiv – the EU-insider publication – has published my opinion piece, based on Netopia’s report on 3d-printing technology and the market and policy disruption that is the potential result of widespread dissemination.  I argue that it is important for the European Commission to take a closer look at these implications, sooner rather than later. Distributed manufacturing challenges many structures of society: gun control is the most spectacular example, but also consumer protection (who is liable if someone is hurt by a 3d-printed object?) and intellectual property rights as the technology as a consumer product could bring similar challenges as the entertainment industry has struggled with in the past decade to manufacturing. Toy piracy, anyone? The way that the cost of development and marketing has been covered by mark-up on the end product is how the equation used to be resolved both for entertainment and consumer goods. In the former case, digital technology broke this link, making it possible for consumers to (illegally in most cases) acquire the content and leaving the producer with the cost. Now, personal 3d-printing could put manufacturing in the same spot. This is often called market disruption. But as the traditional division of intellectual property law into patents, designs, trademarks, copyright and business secrets is challenged by this development, it is fair to talk also about legal disruption or policy disruption. This ought to be on the Commission’s radar, plus other governments of course. But there is one more reason: if distributed manufacturing catches on, it will be increasingly difficult for states to collect sales tax, tariffs, fees and other taxes relating to consumer goods. How to deal with that?

Regrettably, the Commission has a rather poor track record of considering policy implications of technology. When the E-commerce directive was put together in the late Nineties, it assumed regulation concerned dial-up internet connections. However, ADSL technology already existed at the time and only months after the directive, consumer broadband was picked-up on a large scale, forever changing the landscape for e-commerce. Regulation of this field has lagged behind since. With personal 3d-printing, there is an opportunity to avoid repeating this pattern.