How The 3-D Printing Boom May Run Afoul Of The Law
UPDATE: This article originally stated that Sen. Schumer “wants to ban
not just the printing of the gun, but the CAD files themselves.” While
it’s accurate to say Sen. Schumer wants an update to the 1988
Undetectable Firearms Act to prohibit 3-D printed guns, he hasn’t said
exactly how that would be accomplished. We have removed the last section
about the CAD files for clarity.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the nation of England had seen more than its
share of riot, revolt and war. Rabble-rousers and trouble-makers lurked
everywhere. By 1643, Parliament had had enough. And so it approved
something called the “Licensing Order.”
With it, the government effectively outlawed the unlicensed possession
of movable-type printing presses, and also controlled everything that
could be printed with them. As absurd as it may seem now, the Licensing
Order remained law for 51 years, until it was allowed to lapse in 1694.
At the time, movable-type printing was still a newish technology. Some
worried that they might be used to print material that inflamed opinion
or challenged those in power (this is, in fact, is one of its prime
assets.) The thinking went: control the presses, and you can better
control the people.
Since then we’ve learned that some technologies – like printing – simply
can’t be controlled over the long term. A printing press wants to be
Which makes it all the more interesting that so many in the U.S. are now
talking about trying to control an updated version of the printing press
– the 3-D printer.
The 3-D printers have only been around for a short time now, but already
they’re experiencing a boom in development. They take different forms
and employ varying techniques, but the basics are the same.
First, digital computer-aided design, or CAD, files are created that
either mimic a real object or represent something completely new. This
three dimensional CAD file becomes a blueprint for the printer to use an
additive assembly process to slowly build up the printed object layer by
Objects to be printed are slowly built up, tiny layer upon tiny layer,
with a plastic resin-like material. Depending on the object, the
printing process can take eight hours or more.
It sounds like it couldn’t work, and for this writer at least, the first
time seeing one in action it all seems just short of miraculous. Yet
surprisingly complex objects can be created in this way – objects that
are strong, multicolored, and can move in three dimensions.
“This is classic disruptive technology, a new way of doing things that
makes current technology obsolete,” wrote independent journalist Bob
Morris in 2012:
“It will create new industries and eliminate old ones. The trend towards
3D printing cannot be stopped. And it absolutely has a political
component, as it can route around government regulations and will
undoubtedly make some patent and copyright holders go berserk in
attempts to stop it.”
Disruptive technology is just a fancy term for new devices that overturn
the status quo, and examples are legion. Automobiles overturned
railways, TV overthrew radio, LP records were replaced by compact discs,
which are now being replaced by digital music files. Yesterday’s new
thing becomes tomorrow’s must-have. Gutenberg’s movable-type printing
press was just an early disruptor.
But all this disruption comes at a cost, especially if you’re the one
being overturned. Technology tends to move faster than governments, and
politicians of all stripes don’t like being caught off-guard. Often, all
it takes is one incident to thrust a disruptor into public view, setting
off an anxious scramble to respond.
The 3-D printer may have just had its incident, and his name is Cody
Printing the Liberator
“People say it’s unrealistic to print a gun,” Cody Wilson told Vice
magazine this March. “I think it’s more unrealistic…to think you could
ever control this technology.”
The “Liberator” in all its printed pieces (courtesy Defcad.org)
In July of 2012, Wilson with business partner Ben Denio launched Defense
Distributed, a non-profit company that distributes gun and
firearm-related CAD files that users can download and print. In little
under a year, DD collaborators have designed, printed and successfully
tested a variety of gun parts, including high-capacity clips and the
trigger action section of the gun known as a “receiver.”
DD’s designs were successful and relatively popular, until the website
that hosted them, Thingiverse, suddenly removed them last fall. Sensing
censorship, Wilson and Denio opened up their own website, Defcad, and
hosted their DD designs there for anyone to freely download. Earlier
this year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued DD a
license to begin manufacturing gun components.
Unlike many others drawn to 3-D printing, Cody Wilson is no hobbyist or
tinkerer. A law student at the University of Texas and a self-described
“crypto-anarchist,” Wilson thinks and speaks fast, his speech peppered
with phrases like “Fukuyamist,” “autonomous classes” or “oppositional
He’s out to make a political point: that U.S. efforts to limit or ban
certain types of firearms tramples constitutionally guaranteed rights,
and thus will fail. And he sees the 3-D printer as a means to make that
This May, Wilson and Denio put their argument into its sharpest focus
yet when they printed and successfully tested an entire gun made on a
3-D printer. Named the “Liberator,” they put their CAD files on their
website, posted a video of the Liberator’s test on YouTube, and waited
to see what would happen.
It didn’t take long for the government to respond. The State
Department’s department of Defense Trade Controls seized control of the
CAD files, and this message soon went up on Defcad’s website:
DEFCAD files are being removed from public access at the request of the
US Department of Defense Trade Controls. Until further notice, the
United States government claims control of the information.
But nothing stays dead on the Internet for long. The Swedish web-sharing
and Internet activist site, The Pirate Bay, is now hosting the CAD files
for download, well out of reach of the U.S. Government.
“There are people all over the world downloading our files, and we say
good,” says Wilson. “This is something you should have. You can do this
in your bedroom. It’s to prove this political point, that, look man, gun
control doesn’t mean what it did in 1994.”
Reaction and Over Reaction
Last year, few took any notice of Cody Wilson or Defense Distributed and
their “wiki weapons project.” With the Liberator, however, politicians
and pundits are practically tumbling over each other, warning of the
dangers of plastic guns, unregulated printing and the 3-D printer
“Could 3D Printing Unleash a Gun-Printing Craze?” trembles the headline
over at MotleyFool.”Hero or villain?” worries libertarian commentator
Glenn Beck. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer wants to ban the 3-D printing of
a gun, while California state senator Leland Yee has now introduced a
bill to track the sale of every 3-D printer. Shades of 1643.
The current panic about 3-D printed guns may subside, but that doesn’t
mean local, state and even the federal government, won’t pass a
patchwork of new laws that try to regulate what can be manufactured, and
by whom, via 3-D printing.
As with all new technologies, the world is still a long way away from
people buying a Cube CD printer from their local Staples store and then
manufacturing a storehouse of weaponry. 3-D printers are still too
expensive, the materials too weak, and real guns too cheap to worry a
plastic gun shooting spree.
Enthusiasts and hobbyists are experimenting with these new devices to
make all sorts of things. Some envision a small printer in every home –
break a cup? Just print one up! Others foresee medical devices printed
when needed, or even the pieces for an entire house manufactured on
The world may not be on the edge of a new industrial revolution, but
it’s clear 3-D printing will revolutionize how products are created and
distributed, and by whom.
It’s also clear that governments and the law will lag behind as the new
technology gallops forward, meaning people like Cody Wilson will
continue to be flashpoints of controversy.
“I don’t think we’re utopians,” he says. “I think the real utopia is
thinking that you can go back to the 1990′s and everything will be
perfect forever. All we’re saying is no you can’t. Now there’s the