3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology

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* White Paper: It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology. By Michael Weinberg. Public Knowledge, 2010

URL = http://www.publicknowledge.org/it-will-be-awesome-if-they-dont-screw-it-up PDF

= examines how intellectual property (IP) law impacts the rapidly maturing technology of 3D printing, and how incumbents who feel threatened by its growth might try to use IP law to stop it.



Micheal Weinberg:

"The next great technological disruption is brewing just out of sight. In small workshops, and faceless office parks, and garages, and basements, revolutionaries are tinkering with machines that can turn digital bits into physical atoms. The machines can download plans for a wrench from the Internet and print out a real, working wrench. Users design their own jewelry, gears, brackets, and toys with a computer program, and use their machines to create real jewelry, gears, brackets, and toys.

These machines, generically known as 3D printers, are not imported from the future or the stuff of science fiction. Home versions, imperfect but real, can be had for around $1,000. Every day they get better, and move closer to the mainstream.

In many ways, today’s 3D printing community resembles the personal computing community of the early 1990s. They are a relatively small, technically proficient group, all intrigued by the potential of a great new technology. They tinker with their machines, share their discoveries and creations, and are more focused on what is possible than on what happens after they achieve it. They also benefit from following the personal computer revolution: the connective power of the Internet lets them share, innovate, and communicate much faster than the Homebrew Computer Club could have ever imagined.

The personal computer revolution also casts light on some potential pitfalls that may be in store for the growth of 3D printing. When entrenched interests began to understand just how disruptive personal computing could be (especially massively networked personal computing) they organized in Washington, D.C. to protect their incumbent power. Rallying under the banner of combating piracy and theft, these interests pushed through laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that made it harder to use computers in new and innovative ways. In response, the general public learned once-obscure terms like “fair use” and worked hard to defend their ability to discuss, create, and innovate. Unfortunately, this great public awakening came after Congress had already passed its restrictive laws.

Of course, computers were not the first time that incumbents welcomed new technologies by attempting to restrict them. The arrival of the printing press resulted in new censorship and licensing laws designed to slow the spread of information. The music industry claimed that home taping would destroy it. And, perhaps most memorably, the movie industry compared the VCR to the Boston Strangler preying on a woman home alone.

One of the goals of this whitepaper is to prepare the 3D printing community, and the public at large, before incumbents try to cripple 3D printing with restrictive intellectual property laws. By understanding how intellectual property law relates to 3D printing, and how changes might impact 3D printing’s future, this time we will be ready when incumbents come calling to Congress."

Future Isssues

"Thus far, this paper has largely considered how rightsholders would respond with existing intellectual property law if 3D printing became widespread overnight. However, 3D printing will not emerge overnight. It will slowly improve and creep into the mainstream. As this process occurs, there will be tens, if not hundreds, of small intellectual property skirmishes. These skirmishes will attempt to wed existing intellectual property protections to new realities, and in doing so will slowly change the state of the law. While it would be easy to miss these skirmishes – an obscure lawsuit here, a small amendment to the law there – it will be critical not to. In aggregate, these changes will decide how free we will be to use disruptive new technologies like 3D printing to their fullest potential."


"The ability to reproduce physical objects in small workshops and at home is potentially just as revolutionary as the ability to summon information from any source onto a computer screen. Today, the basic outlines of this revolution are just starting to come into focus: 3D scanners and accessible CAD programs to create designs. Connected computers to easily share those designs. 3D printers to bring those designs into the real world. Low-cost, easy to use, accessible tools will change the way we think about physical objects just as radically as computers have changed the way we think about ideas.

The line between a physical object and a digital description of a physical object may also begin to blur. With a 3D printer, having the bits is almost as good as having the atoms. Information control systems that are traditionally applied to digital goods could start to seep out into the physical world.

The basic outlines of this revolution have not yet been filled in. In many ways, this is a gift. Setting the tools free in the world will produce unexpected outcomes and unforeseeable changes. However, the unknowable nature of 3D printing’s future also works against it. As incumbent companies begin to see small-scale 3D printing as a threat, they will inevitably attempt to restrict it by expanding intellectual property protections. In doing so they will point to easily understood injuries to existing business models (caused by 3D printing or not) such as lost sales, lower profits, and reduced employment.

While thousands of new companies and industries will bloom in the wake of widespread 3D printing, they may not exist when the large companies start calling for increased protections. Policymakers and judges will be asked to weigh concrete losses today against future benefits that will be hard to quantify and imagine.

That is why it is critical for today’s 3D printing community, tucked away in garages, hackerspaces, and labs, to keep a vigilant eye on these policy debates as they grow. There will be a time when impacted legacy industries demand some sort of DMCA for 3D printing. If the 3D printing community waits until that day to organize, it will be too late. Instead, the community must work to educate policy makers and the public about the benefits of widespread access. That way, when legacy industries portray 3D printing as a hobby for pirates and scofflaws, their claims will fall on ears too wise to destroy the new new thing." (http://www.publicknowledge.org/it-will-be-awesome-if-they-dont-screw-it-up)