The dark side of 3D printing | Quantumrun
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The dark side of 3D printing

The vast expanse of the floating Orbit city sits countless condos inhabited by futuristic families.  Their working class homes features appliances popping out instantaneous meals at the pace of a fast-food drive-in. The conveyor belt carpet would lead you to a machine, where you can dispense your meal to your exact preferences at the press of a button.

It was what the creators of the cartoon The Jetsons imagined the year 2062 to be like. But today, 49 years earlier in 2013, such technology is already available. What the Jetsons called a “Space Age Stove,” we know it as the 3D printer. The future is now — and yes, they do print food.

In the past, the complexity of 3D printing has confined to the basements of architecture facilities, print companies and the rich. But now, the materials are becoming smaller, cheaper and more refined. They are well on their way to coming within viable reach to the mass consumer. Already, there are printers on the market for the price of an iPhone. It is only a matter of time before it catches on. 

It is a cutting-edge innovation — a machine that can create or perfectly duplicate nearly anything. Imagine taking a chair you designed on AutoCad and printing a perfect version of it in the same day or scanning a poker chip to print out extra for when some inevitably get lost. It’s a fantastic future to entertain. It’s like owning a duplicate factory in the very comfort of your own home. Who wouldn’t want to own a 3D printer?

But as nice as it may sound, there is a particular group not too happy about the advances of 3D printing — manufacturers, patent holders and copyright owners.

With the advent of 3D printing, an age dawns where anyone can download, share and create not just digital files, but physical objects as well. How will companies prevent the illegal sharing and printing of their physical property?

First instances of infringement

In the hands of the masses, 3D printing can be a powerful tool for infringing on intellectual property. Already there are cases where people have posted their 3D designs on the Internet, only others illegally copying their designs.

Feburary this year, Fernando Sosa, made an iPhone dock that took inspiration from the Iron Throne of the TV show Game of Thrones. After months of pain-staking modelling, he finally put the completed design template up alongside other 3D models for sale on his personal website. It was a near-perfect replica of the iconic seat of the powerful ruler in the show’s universe, made entirely of swords. The model was based on still images taken from the TV show and appears far from a knock-off imitation. Sosa took great pride in his work.  

But then the copyright owners found out.

HBO, the television network that owns the rights to the series, quickly slapped a cease-and-desist letter on Sosa. It claimed that the dock infringed on their rights on the Iron Throne design. The letter came during the pre-order stages, well before even a single dock was sold.  

Sosa approached HBO about developing a licensing contract for the throne, but the company said there was already a license for someone else — but wouldn’t say who, and wouldn’t allow him to contact them to share the design.

Another case last year involved two brothers and their tweaked designs of some figurines for the table-top game Warhammer. That winter, Thomas Valenty bought a Makerbot, a relatively inexpensive 3D printer that could quickly print out plastic objects. Using the Imperial Guard figurines as a base, they created their own Warhammer-style pieces and shared the designs on Thingiverse.com, a site that allows users to share and download or tweak their digital designs for others to print. Despite the fact that they might not be exact replicas of the Imperial Guards, Games Workshop, the UK-based firm that owns Warhammer, noticed their work and sent a takedown notice to the site, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Running in circles…or is it?

The swiftness of large companies cracking down on small-time design hobbyists speaks volumes on 3D printing’s threat to intellectual property. The ability to replicate an object is threatening enough, but it is exponentially more threatening when combined with the endless sharing power of the Internet.

This concept is nothing new. This isn’t the first time a new technology has received a less-than-warm welcome at its inception. Rolling out the restriction tape has been a practice since the creation of the original printing press, which resulted in new censorship and licensing laws designed to slow the spread of information.

The music industry proclaimed its demise with home taping. And most famously, Jack Valenti, then president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said in 1982 that the VCR should be made illegal. In his testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Valenti said: “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

But of course, those things are still here. The music industry is not dying, and Hollywood is still churning out multi-million dollar blockbusters year after year. And yet, as VHS turns to the DVD or the CD changes to the mp3 — new ways to share and distribute media en masse — intellectual property owners are getting worried. Many have taken measures to ensure the balance of rights between content creators and the public remain in check.  For one, the World International Property Organization (WIPO) introduced the DMCA in 1996, a legislature that criminalizes services that go around digital copyright protection measures, also known as Digital Rights Management (DRM).

The DMCA was conceived primarily to deal with music piracy — and soon, 3D printing might just get its own DMCA. But how exactly so remains to be seen.   

A person who has worked with and experienced the potential of 3D printing is Laurie Mirsky, director of the Toronto-based 3D printing and design studio, 3DPhactory. From designing cups to designing and producing old 1920’s dolls, he definitely has experienced the versatility of this machine.

“It’s a new medium; the things you can build are really limitless,” he says. “You can build models quickly and people are asking for things that I’ve never even thought of.”

Most of the work his company does is designing and printing props for movies. Mirsky was a producer for film before learning of 3D printing two years ago.  As a person who has worked in a business affected by piracy, he says he knows the potential copyright issues that 3D printing can bring.

And printing objects like a Game of Thrones iPhone dock is a definite no-go.  

“We won’t print things that belong to someone else,” says Mirsky.

The concept of these machines falling prey to the same regulations and laws as the Internet or home-taping is still uncertain. On the one hand, it is a new concept that still needs time to be tested in average consumer waters, and on another there is a division between copyright infringement and patent infringement. Intellectual property law is varied and complex, but so are the potential uses for 3D printing.

Copyrights and Patents

Designing and creating original objects would offer the fewest conflicts with intellectual property — and copyright rules are flexible in that regard. If a student in Montreal were to write a tragic ballad expressing his woes on spiking tuition fees at his university, his work would be protected under copyright. A year later, if a student in Toronto does the same thing, unaware of the first song, copyright protection would be granted as well. The terms of copyright allow for independent creation. While the work must be original in order to receive copyright, it does not need to be unique in the world.

According to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO), these laws can be applied to all original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works from books, pamphlets, music, sculptures, photographs and etc.

The protection of copyright generally lasts for the lifetime of the author, and for 50 years following the end of that calendar year.

The dimensions of copyright and its power over 3D printing is only a small part to the conundrum that has intellectual property owners and independent designers at battle. While the laws of copyright prevent the replication of distinct works of art, the restrictions are increased two-fold when patent protection is thrown into the fray.

Unlike copyright laws, which allows for parallel creation, patent law does not. If a company patents something first, any other companies can’t make any identical ones.

And this is where 3D printing throws a wrench into the system. Typically object creation is kept solely in the labs of research and development teams, and patent law functions around this model. A smart research team would do a patent search before deciding to follow through with a design.

But with 3D printing on the verge of mass distribution, making patent-able objects is not in do of domain of patent-searching research teams anymore. Manufacturing and innovation — it is in the hands of anyone who buys a printer.

According to Michael Weinberg, lawyer for the Internet freedom advocacy group Public Knowledge, this shift into the public realm will likely increase the number of innocent patent infringements — cases where backyard inventors unknowingly step into patent violations.

A single creation for home use is unlikely for warranting a cease-and-desist letter, but if the Internet has taught us anything, it is that we like to share. A person who creates a useful and convenient product may in good spirit upload the design for sharing, blissfully unaware that he might be distributing someone else’s creation without permission.

But luckily, according to the ICPO, patent protection runs for a much shorter time than copyright. A patent will be protected for a maximum of 20 years. Afterwards, the design is within the public domain for use. And the number of non-patented inventions is rather high, allowing for a substantial amount of legroom for aspiring inventors to stretch their creative talons.

Last year, the American professor Levin Golan used 3D printing to take advantage of expired patents, inspired by an unlikely source – the toys of his four-year-old son. Golan wanted to make a toy car out of pieces from two different sets of toys — Tinkertoys and K’Nex , but the K’Nex wheels couldn’t attach to the Tinkertoys’ car frame. After a year of planning with a former student, they created a blueprint containing the design of 45 attachable plastic pieces that can connect to a large number of toy construction sets. They called it the Free Universal Construction Kit. As the acronym suggests, this is less of a product and more of a provocation towards intellectual property owners.

“We should be free to invent without having to worry about infringement, royalties, going to jail or being sued and bullied by large industries,” Golan said in a Forbes article April this year. “We don’t want to see what happened in music and film play out in the area of shapes,”

And maybe Golan will get his wish. Printing in 3D, it appears, can be very helpful to those “large industries” if harnessed correctly.

Manufacturing and Distribution

Usually, with the making of prototypes or any object en route to mass production, a series of back and forth interactions between the designers and the manufacturing companies would have to be done. Printing in 3D greatly streamlines this process by simply creating a design on the computer, and then having it printed within the same day.

From Mirsky’s point of view, this is a step in the right direction. By cutting out the extra investment into manufacturing costs, which not only include design, but in testing and distribution, it may in fact help lubricate the economy with small companies requiring less money for starting up. A more competitive market can be created, and there is also the possibility of more jobs opening up for designers or maintenance of the 3D printers.

And Mirsky says he does not believe that 3D printing will bring much harm to the manufacturing industry. While 3D printing will have its share in diluting the manufacturing industry, he says, not everything that can be printed will be within reach of all consumers.

There is the issue of cost and the question of just how complex consumer grade 3D printers can really be.

“Right now the home printer that people go to is the Makerbot,” says Mirsky. “There’s a lot it can do, but a lot it can’t do. There are limitations on build and construction.  Think of the entry price of $2,200 dollars plus materials. It’s not cheap.

“Also, if you look at Thingiverse and the models and look at the sophistication of the parts, a lot of the designs are fairly elementary, fairly straightforward. At this point it’s not going to replace large scale manufacturing.”

And creating and editing  a 3D design is not as simple as editing an image in Photoshop or iPhoto. Consumer level design software is fairly limited in what it can design — basically things that have a simple structure in shape, assembly, and size. More sophisticated design software is not only a hefty expense, it requires specialized training to be used effectively.

Realistically, Mirsky says he sees the application of home 3D printers as a way to more efficiently distribute replacement parts for already purchased products. Instead of waiting for an item bought off the Internet to be shipped, you can simply purchase the downloadable file and print it immediately. In general, patent law does not restrict the manufacturing of replacement parts.

The uncertain future

In January this year, Weinberg wrote the paper, “It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw It Up,” a look into the future of 3D printing with regards to intellectual property law. He cites an example of possible regulation change in the future: Expanding what constitutes contributory infringement.

Possession of a design file on your computer, running a site that host these design files, anything that provides users easy access to copy protected material — much like the crackdown on bit torrent sites, those things may all become violating offenses, wrote Weinberg. Suing 3D printer manufacturers on the grounds that they provide a means for making copies is entirely possible.

But despite the gloomy future that Weinberg seemed to predict, Mirsky, coming from an industry constantly “ripped-off” by illegal file sharing, remains adamant in seeing this new technology remains as open and fair as it can be — for both sides.

Said Mirsky: “Anytime you allow people to create, it pushes innovation.” 

Impact 

In January this year, Weinberg wrote the paper, “It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw It Up,” a look into the future of 3D printing with regards to intellectual property law. He cites an example of possible regulation change in the future: Expanding what constitutes contributory infringement.

Possession of a design file on your computer, running a site that host these design files, anything that provides users easy access to copy protected material — much like the crackdown on bit torrent sites, those things may all become violating offenses, wrote Weinberg. Suing 3D printer manufacturers on the grounds that they provide a means for making copies is entirely possible.

But despite the gloomy future that Weinberg seemed to predict, Mirsky, coming from an industry constantly “ripped-off” by illegal file sharing, remains adamant in seeing this new technology remains as open and fair as it can be — for both sides.

Forecasted start year: 
2014
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