Difference Engine: The PC all over again?
WHAT could well be the next great technological disruption is fermenting away, out of sight, in small workshops, college labs, garages and basements. Tinkerers with machines that turn binary digits into molecules are pioneering a whole new way of making things???one that could well rewrite the rules of manufacturing in much the same way as the PC trashed the traditional world of computing.
The machines, called 3D printers, have existed in industry for years. But at a cost of $100,000 to $1m, few individuals could ever afford one. Fortunately, like everything digital, their price has fallen. So much so, industrial 3D printers can now be had for $15,000, and home versions for little more than $1,000 (or half that in kit form). ???In many ways, today???s 3D printing community resembles the personal computing community of the early 1990s,??? says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group in Washington, DC.
As an expert on intellectual property, Mr Weinberg has produced a white paper that documents the likely course of 3D-printing’s development???and how the technology could be affected by patent and copyright law. He is far from sanguine about its prospects. 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 3D printer’s ability to make perfect replicas, they will probably try to brand it a piracy machine.
Manufacturers of famous brands have had to contend with ripoffs since time immemorial. Whole neighborhoods exist in Hongkong, Bangkok and even Tokyo that turn out imitation designer handbags, shoes and watches. China has flooded the world with cheap replacement parts based on designs pirated from the original equipment manufacturers.
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 therefore limited the spread of the counterfeiting industry. But give every sweatshop around the world a cheap 3D printer coupled to a laser scanner, and pirated goods could well proliferate.
The first thing to know about 3D printing is that it is an ???additive???, rather than a ???subtractive???, form of processing. The tools are effectively modified ink-jet printers that deposit successive layers of material until a three-dimensional object is built up. In doing so, they typically use a tenth of the material needed when machining a part from bulk. The goop used for printing can be a thermoplastic such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid or polycarbonate, or metallic powders, clays and even living cells depending on the application (see ???Making it???, November 25th 2011).
As far as intellectual property is concerned, the 3D printer itself is not the problem. But before it can start making anything, it needs a CAD (computer-aided design) file of the object to be produced, along with specialised software to tell the printer how to lay down the successive layers of material. The object can be designed on a computer using CAD software, or files of standard objects can be downloaded from open-source archives such as Thingiverse and Fab@Home. Most likely, though, the object to be produced is copied from an existing one, using a scanner that records the three-dimensional measurements from various angles and turns the data into a CAD file.
This is where claims of infringement start???especially if the item being scanned by the machine???s laser beam is a proprietary design belonging to someone else. And unless the object is in the public domain, copyright law could well apply. This has caught out a number of unwitting users of 3D printers who have blithely made reproductions of popular merchandise.
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 art, music and literature). The designer subsequently dropped the case and dedicated the rights to the community. There are now five versions of the Penrose Triangle on Thingiverse.
In another instance, a couple of engineers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh created the CAD files for printing a kit of plug-in parts that allow toy construction sets from different makers to be interconnected. The patents on the various toys involved had long since expired, but any copyright involved still had decades to run. The object was to send ???a shot across the bow??? of any company that might try to control how their physical designs were copied, remixed or improved upon in future. ???We don???t want to see what happened in music and film play out in the area of shapes,??? one of the engineers told Forbes magazine.
What they were referring to, of course, were the DMCA ???takedown??? notices used by record companies and film studios to force file-sharing websites to remove pirated content. While no one can object to a law that penalises those who wilfully infringe the copyright of others, Mr Weinberg is concerned that the ability to copy and replicate can also be used to create, expand upon and innovate. Inhibit that and society gets short-changed. Certainly, DMCA notices can stifle free expression, jeopardise fair use, and impede competition (by, say, blocking designs for aftermarket replacement parts like brake pads or toner cartridges). Similarly, DMCA notices have been used to enforce ???walled gardens??? surrounding products like the iPod. Such actions limit choice for consumers.
As with any disruptive technology???from the printing press to the photocopier and the personal computer???3D printing is going to upset existing manufacturers, who are bound to see it as a threat to their traditional way of doing business. And as 3D printing proliferates, the incumbents will almost certainly demand protection from upstarts with low cost of entry to their markets.
Manufacturers are likely to behave much like the record industry did when its own business model???ba
sed on selling pricey CD albums that few music fans wanted instead of cheap single tracks they craved???came under attack from file-swapping technology and MP3 software. The manufacturers’ most likely recourse will be to 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. So instead, the record companies lobbied to get copyright liability extended to cover not only individuals who infringe, but also those who facilitate infringement???namely, the internet service providers (ISPs) and file-swapping websites.
In that, the record industry was remarkably successful. Today, websites and ISPs have to block or remove infringing material whenever they receive a DMCA takedown notice from a copyright holder???something that happens more often than actually justified. 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.
Rallying under the banner of piracy and theft, established manufacturers could likewise seek to get the doctrine of “contributory infringement??? included in some expanded object-copyright law as a way of crippling the personal-manufacturing movement before it eats their lunch. 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 3D printer churning out copies at home.
Some also expect incumbent manufacturers to try to stigmatise CAD file-types, in the same way the record companies hounded the bit-torrent and MP3 formats as piracy tools. That could slow the mainstream adoption of 3D printing and imply that anyone uploading CAD files to a public site was somehow infringing on rights, notes Cory Doctorow, a Canadian science writer who blogs for Boing Boing.
Today???s 3D printing crowd???tucked away in garages, basements, small workshops and university labs???needs to keep a keen eye on such policy debates as they grow. ???There will be a time when impacted legacy industries [will] demand some sort of DMCA for 3D printing,??? says Mr Weinberg. If the tinkerers wait until that day, it will be too late.