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February 10, 2011
How Could They Not Screw It Up?
If you read Boingboing, Make magazine
, or any of the numerous "maker" blogs you know that 3D printing is one of the hottest new technologies being explored by folk who like to make their own stuff. People are 3D printing everything from whimsical art items
to seriously functional tools
, to experimental objects for use in things like teaching anatomy
However, 3D printing, particularly of objects for things beyond personal use, raises a host of intellectual property questions. If you print a copy of an object, what rights do you have in that object? What rights are potentially infringed if your printed object is a copy of another object that is protected by copyright, trademark, or patent - particularly design patents that are supposed to cover expressive elements?
Public Knowledge's Michael Weinberg takes a serious look at some of these questions from the point of view of someone who believes in the liberating and disruptive effects of this technology.
Weinberg's white paper is called "It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology" and is available for free online from the Public Knowledge site as text or as a downloadable PDF.
He covers all three major forms of IP protection in common use today, at least superficially. This piece is not an in-depth study; rather, it's an introduction to the issues that we will almost certainly see being litigated in this decade. That said, I have to wonder if Weinberg's starting analogy is not the right one. He likens the spread of cheap (sub USD 1000) 3D printers to the spread of once-expensive homebrew computers to hobbyists in the 70s and early 80s but I think from an IP perspective that's not a big deal.
The analogy that comes to my mind is the advent of the cheap "office copier" - back when Xerox and its competitors brought the technology of photographic reproduction of paper into hundreds of thousands of businesses and libraries. The result was a massive wave of copying - including significantly infringing copying - that took almost two decades to get used to and develop practices around. My guess is that even though a 3D printer is more useful for original creation than a copier was we're likely to see a similar set of gyrations and adjustments.
I do foresee a day soon when 3D printers will become easy and cheap enough to have in every home - a really disruptive moment when you need a new stapler or a new kitchen knife and just push a button to make one - but we're not there yet. Weinberg's paper is a call to action to the current wave of 3D hobbyists to work together in anticipation of that day.
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