INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: Free Software Foundation V’s 3DPrinting Copyright?

Our recent articles regarding the a new patent from Intellectual Ventures that attempts to assert ownership of DRM for 3DPrinting raises a plethora of validation issues, concerns, positive applications and negative speculations.

Technology Review’s explanation of how things would work:

“You load a file into your printer, then your printer checks to make sure it has the rights to make the object, to make it out of what material, how many times, and so on,” says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at the nonprofit Public Knowledge, who reviewed the patent at the request of Technology Review. “It’s a very broad patent.”

It’s perhaps an obvious approach, which most engineers or designers could, and doubntless have, conceived. Leaving aside this familiar problem with the patent system, there’s an important expostulation that does not arise in the above exposition – that the printer has the power to disregard the users instructions: to refuse to print the object that you wish, because of the DRM in the file describing it, or there is no DRM at all.

This parallels the situation for computers, where DRM is based on the assumption that your computer is not fully under your control, and has the ability to ignore your commands. That’s one of the reasons why free software is so important: it is predicated on the idea that the user is always in control.

Against the background of the new 3DPrinting patent, this announcement from the Free Software Foundation (FSF) that it has recently certified a 3DPrinter made by Aleph Objects as “respecting the user’s freedom”, takes on a particular significance:

‘The Free Software Foundation (FSF) today awarded its first Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification to the LulzBot AO-100 3D Printer sold by Aleph Objects, Inc. The RYF certification mark means that the product meets the FSF’s standards in regard to users’ freedom, control over the product, and privacy.’

The FSF’s criteria for making the award:

‘The desire to own a computer or device and have full control over it, to know that you are not being spied on or tracked, to run any software you wish without asking permission, and to share with friends without worrying about Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) – these are the desires of millions of people who care about the future of technology and our society. Unfortunately, hardware manufacturers have until now relied on close cooperation with proprietary software companies that demanded control over their users. As citizens and their customers, we need to promote our desires for a new class of hardware – hardware that anyone can support because it respects your freedom.’

That is, in making the award, the FSF has established that the LulzBot remains fully under the user’s control.

Until now, that hasn’t been an issue – there’s no practical way to stop someone from simply downloading a file and then printing it out on a compatible 3DPrinter. But the patent from Intellectual Ventures is the first step towards a time when users of 3DPrinters will be confronted with issues of control in exactly the same way that computer users are today.
Once 3DPrinting becomes more widespread, we can certainly expect pressure from manufacturers to bring in laws against unauthorized copying of physical objects and circumvention of 3D DRM schemes, just as the copyright industries have pushed for ever-harsher laws against file sharing.

They may even try to get open hardware systems like the LulzBot made illegal on the grounds that the user is fully in control – just as large multi-media companies would doubtless love to make computers running free software illegal?

That’s a battle they lost, largely because free software existed long before digital media files were sold to consumers.

We may not be so lucky next time…
Expanded from:

3DPrint Patent Is Weak – New Scientist >


(Image: Martine Roch/Flickr/Getty)

‘One of the greatest benefits of 3DPrinting technology – the ability to make replacements or parts for household objects like toys, utensils and gadgets – may be denied to US citizens thanks to the granting of a sweeping patent that prevents the printing of unauthorised 3D designs. It has all the makings of the much-maligned digital rights management (DRM) system that prevented copying of Apple iTunes tracks – until it was abandoned as a no-hoper in 2009.

US patent 8286236, granted on 9 October to Intellectual Ventures of Bellevue, Washington, lends a 3D printer the ability to assess whether a computer design file it’s reading has an authorisation code appended that grants access for printing. If it does not, the machine simply refuses to print – whether it’s a solid object, a textile or even food that’s being printed.

The piracy of 3D designs is indeed an emerging concern, and 3D object sharing – rather than file sharing – sites have already sprung up. While no 3DPrinter maker has adopted what might be called “3D DRM”, international treaties like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement mean it is not out of the question.

“Clamping down on moves to 3DPrint handguns may fuel such moves, for instance.”

What has riled some tech commentators (here and here for instance) is the fact that Intellectual Ventures that does not make 3DPrinters at all, but simply trades in patent rights – a practice detractors call ‘patent trolling.’

The firm, run by Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold, quietly files patents under the names of a great many shell companies (as this Stanford University analysis shows) and then licenses them to companies using the ideas it lays claim to, litigating if it has to. Intellectual Ventures is thought to hold more than 40,000 patents.

The new patent may face challenges to its validity, however, because it extends rights management beyond 3DPrinting to much older computerised manufacturing techniques, such as computer-controlled milling, extrusion, die casting and stamping.

Companies in those businesses are likely to have previously considered some kind of design rights authentication, says Greg Aharonian, of in San Francisco. He says that museums were wondering how to protect 3D sculptures against printer piracy back in 2002 and that DRM was in the frame then. So Intellectual Ventures’ claim to novelty – a key part of whether any patent is determined to be valid and enforceable – looks weak…’