Rapid growth in 3D printer use raises public policy issues for libraries and society

For Immediate Release
Tue, 01/06/2015


Larra Clark

Deputy Director, Office for Information Technology Policy

ALA Washington Office



WASHINGTON, D.C.— Public policy issues surrounding 3D printers are now coming to the fore as the technology becomes more widely available in America’s libraries and homes. To ensure people are able to use 3D printers responsibly and effectively, librarians must now work towards developing policies in copyright, trademark, privacy, product liability and more. Established, reasonable practices for 3D printing will enable this technology to best serve our communities and inform the laws, regulations and judicial decisions to come.

In a new report from the American Library Association (ALA), author Charlie Wapner encourages libraries, as leaders of the digital learning and 3D printing movement, to take a proactive role in developing institutional policies that address the social, technological and political complexities that result from the rise of 3D printing. “Progress in the Making: 3D Printing Policy Considerations through the Library Lens” is freely available online here (pdf).  

U.S. libraries are in the vanguard of the digital information revolution and are rapidly adopting 3D printers to provide opportunities for library patrons to engage in creative learning, solve community health problems, launch new products and more. In the report, Wapner, who serves as information policy analyst for the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP), outlines the role 3D printing now plays in K-12 schools, higher education and public libraries and analyzes issues related to copyright, trademark, trade dress and product liability that may arise from 3D printing in libraries.

“Given the many legal questions 3D printing gives rise to, libraries need to do more than provide their patrons with instruction in the basics of printer mechanics, maintenance, modeling and scanning,” writes Wapner. “It is in our best interest to think chiefly about what is practicable and consistent with the mission of libraries [in serving the public], and secondarily about what might eventually be held by Congress, regulatory agencies, the state legislatures or the courts to be outside the bounds of the law.”

The report also examines various intellectual freedom issues raised by 3D printing. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, offers guidance to library professionals seeking to craft a 3D printer acceptable use policy that accords with the fundamental library value of free expression.

“Intellectual freedom principles espoused in the Library Bill of Rights and ALA Code of Ethics naturally extend to those tools, technologies, and services that enable library users to create content, including 3D printers,” Stone said. “A written acceptable use policy for the 3D printer is a necessity if the library is to protect users’ intellectual freedom while addressing concerns about safety, access, liability, and illegal use of the 3D printer.”

Since there is little to no jurisprudence on 3D printing in the current legal environment, the report recommends that libraries begin establishing methodologies and regimes for 3D printing practices within their library institutions.

“If library professionals familiarize themselves with the budding policy debates surrounding 3D printing, they can help shape the laws, regulations and corporate policies that coalesce around this technology in the coming years. One goal of our work around 3D printing is to make this possible,” said Alan S. Inouye, director of the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy.

“Libraries are points of access to 3D printing technology for entire communities,” added University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Information Studies Dean Tomas A. Lipinski, who contributed to the paper and provides a sample warning notice that libraries may use with patrons to demonstrate awareness of the legal issues involved in the use of 3D printing technologies in libraries. “As a result, the library community is well positioned to play a key role as this technology advances. We just have to prepare ourselves and our patrons.”

Later this month, a panel of information professionals will gather to discuss the policy implications of 3D printing at “Library 3D Printing—Unlocking the Opportunities, Understanding the Challenges,” a conference session that takes place during the 2015 American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Chicago. The session will be held from 10:30–11:30 a.m. on Sunday, February 1, 2015.

The report is part of ALA’s “Progress in the Making” series, an effort to elucidate the implications of 3D printing in the library context. Read additional ALA-developed 3D printing publications.

About the American Library Association

The American Library Association is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with approximately 55,000 members in academic, public, school, government, and special libraries. The mission of the American Library Association is to provide leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.