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3D printers, one-dimensional enemies

Copy cats

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Public Knowledge has published a provocative paper on 3D printing, entitled: "It Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology",

The document summarises the battle lines around 3D printing, according to Public Knowledge, a Washington DC digital rights lobby group.

But the paper fails to consider the most obvious and immediate issues that face the technology. We think it is one-sided.

Public Knowledge seeks to protect the inventor who uses 3D printing to create new things. But in doing so it also proposes protecting the fan who doesn't feel like contributing to the cost of developing a character or intellectual property.

We're still a decade away from the time when 3D printing is standard domestic kit, but Public Knowledge is right that we need to start thinking about who should be allowed to do what with the kit when it does arrive.

Molten plastic

3D printers work in a similar way to ink-jet printers, but squirt drops of molten plastic instead of ink. When one layer has been finished the head lifts slightly and deposits another layer, building up a 3D model complete with cavities, but without overhangs (as these would have to be suspended in the air while the connections were laid down).

The technology is mostly used for creating prototypes of products that are manufactured using a cheaper process such as injection moulding, but as 3D printers get cheaper they can replace the moulding process and allow anyone to make small items in their own shed - such as replacement parts for things they've bought.

Public Knowledge believes such freedom is under imminent attack from dark forces, which "will likely seek to criminalise the creation of replacement parts without a licence".

Not only that, but these dark forces "could sue manufacturers of 3D printers on the grounds that 3D printers are required to make copies".

This might sound a little paranoid, but it's worth remembering the levy on blank tapes/CDs that some countries collect on the assumption that a proportion of that media will be used for pirated music, and the (thankfully never enacted) suggestions that Digital Rights Management be built into computers, speakers and everything in between.

There is no need to man the barricades right now - 3D printing technology is still some way from the mainstream. Sculpteo launched a print-to-order service in the UK last month, and if you've a lot of spare time you can even buy yourself a 3D printer capable of printing out a copy of itself, or at least, those parts of itself which are composed of shaped plastic lumps.

"At its most basic, 3D printing would allow you to design bookends that look like your face, or even custom action figures. 3D printing could be used to make simple machines like bicycles and skateboards," says the report from Public Knowledge, massively overstating the state of the art.

Right now you'd struggle to make a Lego bicycle: Lego bricks are about the level we're at today, which brings us to the real problem with 3D printing.

3D printing for all!

Public Knowledge and its supporters might imagine 3D printer enthusiasts as tinkering in sheds to create genuinely innovative products, held back only by the big bad corporations who seek to suppress them.

But anyone who's attended a car-boot sale will know that the first mainstream applications of 3D printing will be ripping off other people's toy designs.

Knit yourself a mouse and you might sell it at a craft fair, but put it in red shorts with some white gloves and you'll be fighting the buyers off, at least until Disney notices.

Hand-crafted copyright infringement is epidemic, check out eBay and you'll see hundreds - remember that there is no authorised Calvin and Hobbes merchandise.

Throw a 3D printer into the mix and we'll all be able to turn out copies of R2D2, Light Cycles or wands identical to that wielded by the boy wizard. And even if we don't have our own printer we'll be able to pick up such junk at the neighbourhood yard sale for a few quid.

Examples of 3D printing

The one on the left is cool, but most 3d printers will be busy creating the one on the right

Some 3D printers will, no doubt, be used to extend the life of a product, or create new physical mash-ups of differing designs, but way before we start infringing patents on product designs we need to address the problem of copyright, which is much easier to infringe.

Going back to our Lego example: Lego bricks used to be protected by patent – not the nobbles on the top but the tunnels underneath that grip them – but these days it's the copyright* (which doesn't wear out) that protects the iconic Lego brick. Make one of those, even in the privacy of your own home, and you'll be in breach of copyright just as much as if you printed out your own Mickey Mouse soap holder. ®

* Well-informed readers have pointed out that the Trade Mark on Lego bricks was knocked back at the European Court of Justice last month, sorry for being out of date on that one but the points about patents, trade marks and copyrights remain valid even if the example no longer applies.

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