Technology Quarterly: Q4 2012


The PC all over again?

Difference engine: Just as computers make it easy to copy music, 3D printers will soon allow easy copying of certain kinds of objects. Proponents of the technology should be prepared for toy makers and other manufacturers to fight back

Dec 1st 2012 | from the print edition


TINKERERS with machines that turn binary digits into physical objects are pioneering a whole new way of making things—one that could rewrite the rules of manufacturing in much the same way that the PC laid waste to traditional computing. The machines in question, 3D printers, have existed in industry for years. But at a cost of between $100,000 and $1m, few individuals could afford one. Like everything digital, however, their price has fallen. 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.

A development to be cheered, surely? Perhaps not by everyone. Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group in Washington, DC, fears that the fledgling technology could have its wings clipped by traditional manufacturers who see it as a threat to their livelihoods. Because a 3D printer can make perfect replicas of many kinds of object, manufacturers may seek to brand it a “piracy machine” and demand additional measures to protect their traditional way of doing business. Mr Weinberg worries that they may behave rather like the record industry did when its own business model—based on selling pricey CD albums that few music fans wanted, instead of cheap single tracks they craved—came under attack from Napster and other file-swapping networks.

Established brands have had to contend with rip-offs since the dawn of the industrial age. Whole neighbourhoods exist in Hong Kong, Bangkok and even Tokyo that turn out imitation designer handbags, shoes and watches. But although imitators have invariably used inferior materials and low-cost labour, they still needed costly manufacturing equipment. To some extent, that has limited the spread of fake goods. But cheap 3D printers and laser scanners may cause them to proliferate.

Printer problems

3D printers are akin to inkjet printers, depositing successive layers of material from nozzles until a three-dimensional object is built up. They can make things out of a thermoplastic such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid or polycarbonate, or metallic powders, clays and even living cells. This is far more efficient than starting with a lump of material and machining away the unwanted parts. And unlike with injection moulding, there is no need to set up an assembly line.

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 digital blueprint of the item in question, in the form of a CAD (computer-aided design) file. The blueprint can be created from scratch on a computer or downloaded from online repositories, such as Thingiverse or Fab@Home, and then modified as needed. Blueprints can also be generated from existing objects using a scanner that records three-dimensional measurements from various angles and turns the resulting data into a CAD file.

This is where concerns about infringement start. Unless the object is in the public domain, copyright law could well apply. This has caught out a number of users of 3D printers, who have blithely made reproductions of popular merchandise. It is right to penalize the wilful infringement of others’ copyright, but as with music, the ability to copy and replicate other people’s works can be a form of expression and a source of innovation. The question is where to draw the line.


The danger is that America’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) will be used to stifle free expression, jeopardise fair use and impede competition—by, for example, blocking the distribution of blueprints for aftermarket replacement parts such as brake pads or toner cartridges. Draconian enforcement would reduce consumer choice and hamper the huge potential of 3D printing to spur innovation.

As with any disruptive technology—from the printing press to the photocopier and the personal computer—3D printing is bound to upset existing ways of doing things. And as 3D printing proliferates, incumbent manufacturers are likely to demand protection from low-cost upstarts entering their business. They may even lobby to have 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,” worries Mr Weinberg.

The lesson the record industry learned from its copyright battles with file-swappers was that going after individual infringers was prohibitively expensive and caused bad publicity. 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 services. Today, websites and ISPs have to block or remove infringing material whenever they receive a DMCA takedown notice from a copyright holder. The figures suggest that this happens more often than is 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. More than half were from companies trying to restrict the activities of rival firms rather than lawbreakers.

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 able to sue websites that host 3D design files as “havens of piracy” would save them the expense of trying to prosecute thousands of individuals with 3D printers churning out copies at home.

All this suggests that today’s fledgling 3D-printing community—tucked away in garages, basements, small workshops and university labs—needs to keep an eye on such policy debates as they emerge. “There will be a time when legacy industries demand some sort of DMCA for 3D printing,” says Mr Weinberg. But if the tinkerers wait until that day, it will be too late.