Brad Moon recently wrote an article for InvestorPlace.com titled, "3D Printing Party Could End Before It Begins." It includes some solid points about the growth of the industry, as well as common misconceptions about things like printing an AR-15 with a personal-class 3D printer. It also stresses possible hurdles faced by the industry.
The article raises the spectre of legal concerns being a stifling force. Specifically mentioned are 3D Systems patent suit against Formlabs, Digital Rights Management (copy protection) and Thingiverse responding to DMCA takedown notices. It goes a step further in stating the legal consensus seems to be that 3D printing is governed by patent laws and not copyright laws.
These issues are much ado about nothing.
Whether 3D Systems wins its suit against Formlabs or not is irrelevant. Stereolithography is going to enter the lower price bracket, because pro-class quality at personal-class pricing is good for the consumer, and because the Form 1 isn't the only low cost photopolymerization printer recently introduced. You can bet the brain trust at 3D Systems recognizes the inevitable and is planning accordingly.
The computer software industry has utilized Digital Rights Management for decades and still does, so I don't think I'm going out on a limb to predict similar copy protection schemes would not mean the end of 3D modeling. Copy protecting 3D models would make them less easy to steal, but it wouldn't change the fact that the world uses and needs 3D models.
Takedown notices are nothing new. They existed in the form of cease and desist letters prior to the DMCA. The recent inclusion of sites like Thingiverse is natural, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall 3D and game modding universe, by its digital nature a petri dish for IP infringement. Sites that wish to remain in existence do not ignore DMCA takedown notices.
3D models are just data files. It doesn't matter whether it is digitized sound waves, written words, or a 3D model's point cloud coordinates. In the United States, when someone creates an original work, they own the copyrights to it the second they create it, unless they were paid to do the work.
Both patent law and copyright law apply to 3D printing, because 3D printing is made up of both data and hardware. Like books and music, artistic 3D models will continue to be governed by copyright law, as they always have been. 3D printers are hardware and will thus be governed by patent laws, even if 3D modeling was utilized during the printer's design process. Artistic hard goods that infringe a copyright or trademark (for example, 3D printed action figures marketed as GI Joe) will result in copyright, trademark or trade dress suits, whereas functional hard goods that infringe patents will result in patent suits, whether made with a 3D printer or not. The laws that already exist to handle these scenarios do not cease to apply simply because 3D printers are a relatively new delivery medium or production platform. If I carved little soldiers with a knife and piece of oak I would still be begging for a lawsuit if I offered them on a web site as GI Joes.
Will 3D printing technology be disruptive? Yes. Will it impact employment? Probably, although I suspect it will displace and create jobs more than eliminate them. Will legal complications "end the party before it begins?" No.
Forget about legal doom-saying. The only thing potentially harmful to the 3D printing industry is a lack of continued development, which is extremely unlikely in a competitive global market. If 3D printers get easier to use, prices continue to drop and print quality continues to improve, they will eventually become mainstream. It may take 10 or more years, but in the meantime, there are approximately 40 million licensed CAD/3D modeling software users out there and roughly 50,000 3D printers currently in use. You do the math.