Why 3D printers could hammer the manufacturing industry

The new age of piracy

Jae C. Hong/CP

It’s being called the “copyright Armageddon,” a looming legal battle between manufacturers and the Internet, thanks to the increasing popularity of 3D printers. With some desktop units available for as little as $500, almost anyone can now print plastic items from the comfort of home—tools and toys, house decorations, even musical instruments. The possibilities seem limitless—and so, too, does the potential for piracy.

Internet piracy has been an issue ever since Shawn Fanning created the music file-sharing program Napster. Though Napster was shut down in 2001, after one of the biggest copyright battles in history, piracy has only spread, from music to movies and books. But until recently, online theft has been limited to data, not physical objects.

Now some file-sharing websites are taking advantage of what many expect to be the next digital revolution. Popular music and video downloading website the Pirate Bay has rolled out a database for 3D downloads. The 3D printers, which are about the size of a microwave, read the files—essentially a digital blueprint—and lay down thin layers of plastic from the bottom up to build objects. There are files that claim to print everything from a working “Nerf gun” to an iPod dock.

Some companies are already taking legal action. Games Workshop, the maker of popular toy figurines, filed cease and desist notices in June against the 3D download website Thingiverse for posting files for some of its models. While a flood of lawsuits seems inevitable, some experts warn that corporations have a tough fight on their hands. “It’s difficult when it comes to copyright because it’s not like it is with music or movies—physical objects don’t have the same level of protection,” says Michael Weinberg, a lawyer for the Internet advocacy group Public Knowledge. Weinberg notes that while some designs might have patent or copyright protection, it is difficult for companies to claim a monopoly on the production of functional objects, meaning a company that makes tools would have a hard time bringing a successful suit against someone who prints a 3D hammer or wrench.

Not all brand items are necessarily protected, either. “Lego has some patents and some copyrights on designs, but the object itself doesn’t really have any protection,” says Weinberg. The last Lego block patent expired in 1989. The test will be how companies like Lego address 3D printed designs. “Lego can go after them as pirates or it can embrace them as big fans. We haven’t seen Lego running around suing people yet,” says Weinberg. But Lego has been aggressive in defending its products in the past, with mixed success. In 2003, Lego won a lawsuit in Norway against a company for capitalizing on brand confusion to sell building blocks. In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed a Lego suit against its archrival Mega Brands.

Some argue that the responsibility for stopping illegal activity may lie with 3D printer manufacturers. Intellectual Ventures, a U.S. patent company, owns a patent for a 3D printing protection system that functions in a similar fashion to the digital rights management (DRM) systems that have emerged in the music industry—basically a way for printers to acknowledge that an object has been legally downloaded before printing. The company is quick to point out that there is no legal requirement for this technology.

The big fear within the 3D printing industry is that governments will step in with laws limiting the use of the technology. In the U.S., a 2011 Atlantic Council report floated the idea of creating a law similar to the Digital Millennium Copyrights Act that would allow copyright holders to demand files be removed due to infringement.

Groups like Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation hope that companies will choose to adapt to the new technology rather than spend millions fighting it. Manufacturers, for instance, could offer to sell 3D files through an official store, much like songs sold on iTunes. That, however, could have a dire effect on retailers. “As more organizations and individuals become manufacturers, the lines between manufacturer and customer will blur. When there is a retailer in between, those lines will blur too. Manufacturing will become retailing,” wrote the tech consulting firm CSC in a report last year on the future of 3D printing.

Any open embrace of 3D printing seems unlikely. It was nearly five years between Napster and the opening of iTunes stores across all platforms—a period that allowed illegal downloading to establish a firm toehold in the market. Like the music and film industries before them, manufacturers seem destined to slug it out in the courts, and history suggests it’s not going to be pretty.




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Why 3D printers could hammer the manufacturing industry

  1. So now is the perfect time to re-write the patent and copyright laws. Our patent laws are a joke and have been manipulated to stifle competition and suppress technology, the very opposite of what they were intended for.

    Screw the large Corporations, they have become an obstacle to progression. It’s time we write patent and copyright laws from the perspective of moving society forward, not holding us back/holding us down or for individual selfish wants. The latest copyright laws are great example, written by the industry, the only motives are their own, nothing there about what is best for our society, only what is best for an industry.

    Question: If Free Energy was available do you even think we would be allowed to have it?

    I think this is an important question because many believe that the only reason we do not have it is because it just doesn’t exist. I disagree, I think it exist and it is being withheld from us so those with the power can maintain the power they have now. Free Energy would be the greatest tool for equality across the world and that is the reason we are not allowed to have it.

  2. Please hand over the tech talk to Jesse Brown, he knows what he’s talking about.

    “Internet piracy has been an issue ever since Shawn Fanning created the music file-sharing program Napster. ”

    Computer piracy has been since 1976 in the fight between hobbyists and Bill Gates.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Letter_to_Hobbyists

    This invention is what was needed to let the people take back the means of production.

    edit: The brand owners with any sense will start selling construction guides or applications for their products. But I suspect a whole lot of them will be too stupid to make the move and open sourced projects will tear them to pieces.

    • The construction guides will be pirated. Note that the article specifically points out that it’s the Pirate Bay which has opened up a database for 3D files.

      Basically, this technology will destroy any business that makes items from plastic. That’s a lot of people, so we better start thinking about what we’re going to do with them all.

      • Precisely, and not just in plastic, anything if your wares are simple enough to be detailed in a few pages and built by Joe Average. Now if this happens, did the collective wealth go up or down? Did the invention of the light bulb spell the doom of mankind after the candlewax market collapsed? Did piracy cause the collapse of the technology sector or did it manage keep on pulling off the impossible? How can a million factories operating independently be worse for us than a limited number operating for it’s owners? This brings the whole point of manufacturing-based economy, 80 hours work week and high costs of education.

        Our current system is designed to produce drones educated enough to operate manufacturing lines but not enough to be independent and pursue personal fulfilment, with a handful or two of educated overseers who are in turn kept in line through banks. This order was put in danger after WW2 when the western world realised it had the capacity to produce everything people needed, hence the need for planned obsolescence, the five blade Gilette razor, the Swiffer mop and manufacturer-specific printer ink cardriges to keep the underclass working hard for it’s salvation and the bosses of old safe in their spot.

        Now if the basic means of production can be owned by anyone, it spells the end of that bullshit and the true beginning of a technology and know-how based economy. Everyone has access to basic items and your plus-value is not defined by the ownership of hardware Joe Average can never hope to own, but by the way you are able to use that 3D printer innovatively and execute complex tasks with it.

        (Sorry for long post and possibly mangled english)

        edit: Also, I did mention open sourced project for a reason. Piracy, as defined by our pathetic patent laws, is only the tip of the iceberg. What about when someone is going to just come up with a better idea than yours and give it away for free? The technology sector knows how to deal with this. The manufacturing sector does not and will be forced to redefine itself.

  3. I’ve been waiting for Replicators ever since I saw them on Star Trek in the 60s.

    Of course it’s going to kill manufacturing! And many other things……… like cash.

  4. Just wait until you can build 3D printers with 3D printers!

  5. People who believe that having a free ride ripping off other people’s designs/content – aka “sharing” is a good idea must be either 15-25 yo kids whose parents still pay for their broadband or some “philosophers” who try to blame the corporations, secret organisations, politicians and entire universe for their own failures and frustrations in life.

    Innovation and progress has never been isn’t and will never be driven by an army of altruistic hippies with 3D printers or/and CNC machines (and plenty of time on their hands…) in their garages but by companies that has sufficient resources to invest and to take the risks.

    In exchange for very often huge investments they expect their technologies, designs and other intellectual property to be protected.
    Without the protection of intellectual property the incentives for investment disappear. Ask yourself whether you would bother risking investing your own time and savings on a brilliant product if in a few weeks time the blue prints would be available on “sharing” websites for everyone to download and print?

    Something very important to point out before you’re going to start screwing those evil companies is that the overwhelming number of businesses aren’t corporations at all but micro to medium businesses and it’s them who will suffer the most if everyone one day will be able to copy and print everything they fancy.

    Illegal file sharing community isn’t really much different from a mindless mob looting the shops. Mentality, excuses and justifications are always the same.

    P.S. I find it ironic that advocates of “sharing” usually don’t have anything to share themselves. It’s just like socialists who are always good at distributing the wealth of other more able and harder working people… until they run out of it:-)

    • I know you want to keep the old business model….but that ain’t gonna happen, so adjust your mind accordingly.

      • This “old” model (aka real world) seems to be working pretty well for vast majority of people (working adults…) especially those creative ones who actually invent, design and sell things themselves rather than just talk about about it or wait until someone else “shares” things with them.

        This “model” provides you with almost everything you’ve got at home from your underwear and T-shirt to your computer, mobile and finally… the technology that makes 3D printing possible…

        This is not really about manufacturing which is an easy part but mainly the technology. As I said before you need a highly organised and concentrated resources and capital to develop new technologies and generate progress and a bunch of cool dudes in Starbuck discussing how to change the world and spending evenings printing plastic adjustable spanners and Star Wars figures in their kitchens won’t do it.

        3D printing is overrated anyway and like any other other technology has its limitations. Comparing to other production methods it simply easier to “understand” and “sell” and the idea of some microwave style cool gadget is very appealing. The reality is that in a 10 years time people will be still be making the same useless gadgets with visible lines every 0.1mm.

        Instead of watching too many Youtube videos talk to people who ACTUALLY MANUFACTURE things for living (my name contains a clue) :-)

        • When the first cars appeared on the road, they’d often break down.

          People in buggies would clip-clop by them, laugh and yell ‘Get a horse’

          Guess who won?

        • Quite a bold use of parenthesis and CAPITAL LETTERS, bravo. I did not get the parts about Starbucks, Star Wars and Youtube tough, please go easy on me I’m using a second language here.

          About young dreamers in their garages, check out the history of the companies named Microsoft and Apple. Crazy stuff.

          About medium and small businesses, check out “rapid prototyping” on google and see what a 3D printer can mean for them.

          About the limitations of 3D printing, technology tends to advance as time goes and costs tend to go down.

          About open source projects and sharing, check out Linux, Steam Greenlight, Wikipedia, the Raspberry Pi, or anything with a GNU license..

          For the record, I work as an engineer who actually designs, prototypes and manufactures things. I assume any of your replies will be mostly colorful depictions of imaginary teenagers you are talking with so I think we are done here.

          • I think you got me completely wrong here. I don’t have an issue with
            3D printing in general (Yes, I know its role in manufacturing) but lack
            of understanding and respect by many people of the basic concept of
            intellectual property and a strong sense of self-entitlement to the
            fruits of other peoples’ labour.

            Microsoft, Apple and many other companies and individuals (e.g. Dyson who I admire very much) would never be where they are now if their inventions and designs weren’t protected by patent law and copyrights. Vision and enthusiasm will only get the business so far. Sooner or later It’ll need some serious investment and highly organised structure and the bunch of dreamers will become a big corporation.

            I very much appreciate sharing as long as you share your own content or you have the author’s permission.
            Whoever buys my product, reverse-engineers it and posts a CAD file on a sharing website is effectively an accessory to a theft and individuals
            printing products based on those files are stealing it exactly in the
            same way as the physical product from the shelf.

            People involved in non-profit projects deserve a credit for their enthusiasm an energy but let’s be realistic… open source projects really haven’t changed the world in any significant way, have they?
            The overall growth and quality of life wouldn’t suffer in the slightest without them.

            When it comes to dreamers… I’m actually one of them although on a much smaller much smaller than Microsoft or Apple or you company.

            I always wanted a CNC machine and it finally materialised a couple of years ago.
            After work I spend a few hours machining some hobby related widgets in 6061 and sell them on Ebay and hopefully next year I hope to push it further and rent a small workshop. I took me ages to climb the learning CNC curve from scratch, convert the manual mill to CNC, build an enclosure, machine tooling plates and fixtures, get the anodising “line” organised etc… Getting a product from a sketch on a napkin to a final commercial version is also very time and energy consuming as you very well know.

            Perhaps that sheds some light as to why I’m so crossed with people who are trying to tell the creators what they should or what they shouldn’t be doing with my products and designs and who can’t see anything wrong with theft of ideas.

            Speaking generally it’s my design(s) and my product(s)
            and it’s me who decides how they’re distributed. If (after the
            “revolution”) you don’t like the fact that I don’t sell my blueprints
            online then don’t buy them and stop finding excuses to download it
            illegally. Most of people will be probably doing it anyway.

            I hope your company is specialized highly enough to survive the “revolution”.

          • “People involved in non-profit projects deserve a credit for their enthusiasm an energy but let’s be realistic… open source projects really haven’t changed the world in any significant way, have they?”

            I understand your points on intellectual property, and I agree that sharing without permission is wrong. I completely disagree with your dismissal of open-source projects not changing the world.

            The machine in the image at the top of this article is the product of open-source project. Open source web servers are what allowed the web to take off. OSX is based on an open kernel. Linux does much of the heavy work of the internet in server racks everywhere. Android is currently eating iOS’ lunch. You may not consider these significant. I disagree.

            I understand how invested you must feel after working your way into a small workshop. Of course, building a CNC router is a large undertaking. I imagine you didn’t start from scratch. I hope you didn’t use anyone else’s important intellectual property while constructing it! Of course, there are many open CNC projects on the web. Did you “steal” some of their ideas?

            3d printing has been around for decades. The only reason that there’s a current renaissance in the area is because the patents around fused deposition modelling (the technique used by most of these printers) has lapsed and an open community of hardware hackers has grown up around the Reprap project.

            In the long run, controlled information, cutthroat competition, and legal stonewalls will lose to shared knowledge, cooperation, and legal ceasefires.

            Your designs are almost certainly inferior to ones that can be arbitrarily improved by an unhindered community.

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