The next great technological disruption is fermenting away, out of sight, in garage workshops, college labs, and basements. Hobbists with machines that turn binarys into molecules are pioneering a new way of making, everything. One that could well rewrite the rules of making and manufacturing, in much the same way as the PC revolutionised the world of computing… and the world.
The machines, called 3DPrinters, have existed in industry for years. But at a cost of $100,000, few individuals could ever afford one. But, as with all technology, their price has fallen – industrial 3DPrinters can now purchased for $15,000. Home versions for little more than $1,000, or half that in kit form…
“In many ways, today’s 3DPrinting community resembles the personal computing community of the early 1990s,”
– Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at Public Knowledge
As an expert on intellectual property, Mr Weinberg has produced a white paper that documents the likely course of 3DPrinting’s development – and how the technology could be affected by patent and copyright law.
He is far from certain about its potential. His main fear is that the fledgling technology could have its wings clipped by traditional manufacturers, who will doubtless view it as a threat to their livelihoods, and do all in their powers to nobble it. Because of a 3DPrinter’s ability to make perfect replicas, they will probably try to brand it’s produce piracy to protect their brand.
But while the pirates’ labour rates and material costs may be far lower, the tools they use to make fakes are essentially the same as those used by the original manufacturers. Equipment costs alone have thus limited counterfeiting industry growth… but given a cheap 3DPrinter coupled to a laser scanner, and pirated goods may indeed proliferate.
Intellectual property is unconcerned with the 3DPrinter itself, but before it can manufacture, it needs a file of the object to be produced, along with specialised software to tell the printer how to lay down the successive layers of material, designed on a computer using CAD software, or downloaded from open-source archives.
But many may be copied from an existing product, using a scanner that records the 3D measurements from various angles and turns that data into a CAD file. This is where claims of infringement start, unless the object is in the public domain, copyright law could well apply. This has caught out a number of unwitting users of 3DPrinters who have made reproductions of existing products.
Earlier this year, for instance, one hobbyist worked out how to print the popular “Penrose Triangle”, an optical illusion that cannot exist in normal three-dimensional Euclidean space, and released a video challenging others to say how it was done.
Another 3D modeler not only figured it out but uploaded the CAD file of his own solution to Thingiverse. Whereupon the initial designer threatened Thingiverse with legal action under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998.
The issue was only resolved when it was pointed out that someone else actually invented the Penrose Triangle (a Swedish artist in the 1930s), and the optical illusion itself could be considered a useful object—and therefore did not qualify for copyright protection which covers only non-functioning intangibles such as pictures, philharmony and prose.
The designer subsequently dropped the copy-write case and dedicated the rights to the community. There are now five versions of the Penrose Triangle on Thingiverse.
Manufacturers are likely to behave much like the record industry did when its own business model – based on selling expensive albums that few music fans actually wanted, instead of the cheap single tracks they saught – came under attack from file-swapping technology and MP3 software: embrace copyright, rather than patent, law, because many of their patents will have expired.
Patents apply for only 20 years while copyright continues for 70 years after the creator’s death.
So expect manufacturers to lobby for their own form of DMCA, with copyright protection expanded to cover functional objects that contain elements of design. “This would create a type of quasi-patent system, without the requirement for novelty or the strictly limited period of protection,” says Mr Weinberg.
The biggest lesson the record industry learned from its copyright battles with file-swappers was that going after individual infringers was prohibitively expensive and time consuming. Instead, the record companies lobbied to get copyright liability extended to cover not only individuals who infringe, but also those who ‘facilitate infringement…’ Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the file-swapping websites themselves.
The record industry was very successful. Today, websites and ISPs have to block or remove infringing material whenever they receive a DMCA takedown notice.
Google reckons that more than a third of the DMCA notices it has received over the years have turned out to be bogus copyright claims.
Over a half were from companies trying to restrict competing businesses rather than law-breakers.
Under the banner of piracy, established manufacturers could likewise seek to get the doctrine of “contributory infringement” included in some expanded object-copyright law, as a way of decimating the home manufacturing movement early in it’s development.
Being free to sue websites that host 3D design files as “havens of piracy” would save them the time and money of having to prosecute thousands of individuals with a 3DPrinter churning out copies at home.
“You’ll have people going to Washington and saying we need new rights,” Weinberg frets. Laws that keep 3D printers from outputting anything but objects “authorised” by megacorporations – DRM for the physical world. To stave this off, Weinberg is trying to educate legislators now.
Lets hope he is successful. After all, 3D printers aren’t just about copying. They’re a powerful new tool for experimenting with the design of the physical world, for thinking, for generating new culture, for stretching our imaginations.
Today’s 3DPrinting community needs to keep a keen eye on such policy debates as they grow.
“There will be a time when impacted legacy industries demand some sort of DMCA for 3DPrinting,” says Mr Weinberg.