Photo by Zach Zupancic, via Flickr.

Novel technology almost always tests the law’s ability to adapt. The 3-D printer is no different on this front: The device that can be used to building handbags and houses also portends the possibility of printing untraceable guns, knives and other tools threatening in the wrong hands.

Stanford Law professor Mark Lemley takes this notion a few steps further. In an upcoming paper co-authored by Bournemouth University’s Dinusha Mendis and Queensland University of Technology’s Matthew Rimmer, Lemley and company explore “the legal, ethical, and public policy issues in respect of intellectual property, innovation, regulation,” the abstract says.

The Recorder affiliate Legaltech News recently caught up with Lemley to discuss “print crime” and the novel legal issues sparked by 3-D printing, his analysis of the “Maker Movement” and its potential to change commerce, and how lawmakers and lawbreakers will interact in the years to come.

Legaltech News: What are some novel issues we could see with 3-D printing, given copyright and trademark laws currently on the books?

Mark Lemley: 3-D printing separates design from manufacturing and it democratizes manufacturing. Anyone can share a design anywhere—it’s just data. And anyone with the design can make the product in the privacy of their own home. That means that those who want to enforce IP laws are in for a hard time.

Your paper also brings up potential controversies around 3-D printing guns. Are the current disputes playing out in courts and among lawmakers ones you’d say were … predictable? What sort of legal framework do you imagine will result from this use of 3-D printers?

I think the copyright/trademark controversy and the 3-D printed gun controversy are in some sense the same. In both cases, the current or proposed laws are based on restricting access to things, whether they are copyrighted sculptures, patented machines, branded handbags, or plastic guns. The struggles over the last few decades about whether to regulate the internet itself in order to more easily control content on the internet will replicate themselves here with 3-D printers.

It makes sense to ban plastic printed guns and other things replicators can create, like smallpox viruses. But it’s a big and unwarranted step from that to banning or regulating the use of 3-D printers themselves. Given the Republican resistance to any form of gun regulation, I actually think the existence of a 3-D printed gun may be the best indication that we won’t ban or regulate 3-D printers altogether.

Your paper is slated to analyze 3-D printing under the lens of policy, ethics, regulations and other legal issues. Which arena is the most thorny?

Our forthcoming book, “3D Printing and Beyond: Intellectual Property and Regulation,” tackles these issues from a variety of perspectives and a variety of countries. I think IP issues will be the first to come up in force, but they are also the ones we have the best template for answering because of the similar issues that we’ve dealt with around the internet.

Considering the plethora of creations likely to come, is there a fine line we may encounter that forces us to choose between innovation and IP? Where do you see U.S. legislators and the courts steering things?

The difficulty of enforcing IP rights against 3-D printing is a real challenge for IP law. But it won’t mean no innovation. To the contrary, if the internet is any guide, we will get more creativity than ever before even as IP becomes harder and harder to protect. As I suggested in a paper a few years ago in the NYU Law Review, as the cost of production goes down more and more people create. That’s the opposite of what IP predicted, and it may mean that the right role for IP in the future is more limited than it is today.

Do you think the Maker Movement actually might actually match up to something like the industrial revolution in terms of impact?

I do think 3-D printing has the potential to revolutionize the making of many things in the same way the internet fundamentally changed the making and distributing of creative works. One broader challenge is how that affects the economy as a whole. We’ve already moved away from a world in which people go to stores; now stores bring things to them. 3-D printing may mean that increasingly stores bring you raw materials and you (or your corner print shop) do the rest. That has implications not just for IP, but for how people interact, how cities are configured, how much we drive, and much more.