30 April 2010

When We Can Copy *Analogue* Artefacts...

The recent battle over the Digital Economy Bill has focussed renewed attention on the area of copying digital artefacts – music and films, for example. It's a subject I've started writing and speaking about more and more; for example, here are some thoughts on why free software's success is crucially important in this area.

But I have confession to make: that article is a bit of a cop-out. I didn't address the even bigger issue of what happens when we can copy *analogue* artefacts. Yup, you read that aright: the time is fast approaching when we will be able to download a chair or a bicycle and just print it out. Clearly, this will make the idea of *analogue* scarcity rather more complex (although energy concerns will always place a lower bound on the cost of making such copies).

People have only just begun thinking about the implications of this shift – not least because it's so mind-boggling, and will make the current brouhaha over digital copying look like the proverbial vicar's tea party. But the first works grappling with this have started emerging; here's one of them:

Throughout recorded history most people who have wanted a household article have bought or bartered it from someone else – in past times an artisan or trader, more recently a seller of mass-produced products. With few exceptions (such as some clothing) it is rare that any of us make such articles for ourselves these days. That may soon change. Thirty years ago only dedicated enthusiasts would print their own photographs or edit and reproduce their own newsletters. The advent of the home computer, and in particular of low-cost high-quality printers, has now made such things simple and commonplace. Recent developments in producing affordable and hobbyist-friendly printers that can reproduce three-dimensional rather than just flat objects may mean that printing a toast-rack or a comb becomes as easy as printing a birthday card.

Any lawyer familiar with copyright and trade mark law can see, however, that printing one’s own birthday cards could, depending on the source and nature of the images used, infringe a number of intellectual property (IP) rights. Tempting as it may be to copy and use a picture of a well-known cartoon character, the resulting cards would very likely be an infringement of the copyright and perhaps trade marks owned by the relevant rights holder. But what if someone uses a printer capable of producing a mobile phone cover bearing such an image? Or reproducing a distinctively-styled piece of kitchenware? What about printing out a spare wing-mirror mount for your car? Do these uses infringe IP rights?

In the first part of this paper, we review the history of 3D printing and describe recent developments, including a project initiated by one of the authors to bring such printers into the home. We then examine the IP implications of personal 3D printing with particular reference to the bundle of rights that would typically be associated with a product that might be copied.

It finishes with the following interesting observations:

rights holders are likely to be concerned if personal 3D printers become widespread and effective enough to impinge on commercial exploitation of their IP rights. Indications as to how they might react can be seen from the recent history of music copyright infringement via the Internet. Both technical and legal responses have been tried, including the use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology and proposals to strengthen legislative measures. Will these be applied to restrict low-cost 3D printing?

Technical measures would quickly founder on the problem that, unlike music file-sharing, personal 3D printing does not produce an exact copy that can be digitally signed or protected with DRM. It is the sharing of (as seen, legitimately) reverse-engineered designs that is the issue, not original design documents. Although scanners and printers have incorporated anti-forgery measures to detect attempts to duplicate banknotes, such techniques are very specifically targeted at one well-defined item.1 Whist commercially-produced low-cost 3D printers might be configured to only use authorised DRM-protected 3DPDFs digitally signed by the rights holder, such measures would seriously constrain their usefulness and make them unattractive compared to open-source 3D printers.

It is worth noting, however, that this same point indicates that it may be some time before the level of detail and accuracy attainable by personal 3D printers becomes sufficient to seriously impinge upon the market for quality products, as distinct from utilitarian goods or spare parts (the reproduction of which, as has been noted, is in any case less likely to infringe IP rights.) Unlike digital audio and video copying, which produces perfect copies, copying of articles via 3D printing will be readily distinguishable from the original.

It concludes:

The most optimistic evangelist of low-cost 3D printing would probably admit that the household domestic 3D printer is years, if not decades, from widespread use. Its impact will be gradual, as unlike file-shared MP3s it will not immediately provide for the reproduction of faithful copies. Rather, as its ease-of-use, fidelity and range of materials increases, so will its attractiveness and range of applications. This should, at least, allow for a more measured consideration of the legal issues that will arise from such use. In the longer term, personal 3D printers may conceivably lead to radical changes in the nature of the manufacturing economy; the IP implications of such further developments have so far been imagined only in science fiction.

But make no mistake: it's coming....

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

10 comments:

drkoepsell said...

Hi Glyn, great for catching this problem. I published a paper about this as well back in September, in Nanoethics: http://www.springerlink.com/content/8150036746442m25/fulltext.html

glyn moody said...

@drkoepsell: ahead of the curve, as usual - thanks, also RT'd.

So, is this your next book....?

drkoepsell said...

yep, you got it!

glyn moody said...

@drkoepsell: excellent news...

Anonymous said...

Why the cop out? If you are consistent in your views the answer is quite simple, a 3d copy is no different from an audio copy or 2d copy. This will have huge impacts on mtg industries.

glyn moody said...

The cop-out was simply that I didn't *address* the issue, not that I had different views in this space...

Anonymous said...

I'm curious where you stand on counterfeiting. Once we have 3D printers and 3D scanners, I'll be able to make an exact reproduction of an Aston Martin - which I assume you have no problem with.

But in the early years of 3D printers I may be the only one in my neighborhood with a high quality printer - so is it OK for me to print out Aston Martins for my friends? Surely this is OK, too.

Continuing the though experiment, before 3D printers are household items, only large manufacturing corporations will have them. So is it OK for New China Motors to scan and print an Aston Martin and sell it?

The real question, of course, is does Aston Martin own the rights to the design of their cars? Certainly New China Motors has the technology and capability to copy an Aston Martin today. In your view, should they be able to do this? And if not, what differentiates this type of counterfeiting from the cases above?

glyn moody said...

@anonymous: these are great questions. In fact, they are so good, they deserve a full answer, so I shall write a separate post trying to address them (probably tomorrow, if I have time).

Thanks.

Chris said...

Improvements in technology for 3d printers systems has today allowed a significant range of companies (not just CAD designers) to use different materials (often low cost) instead of plastic or metals. Rapid Protoype useage is in the future getting higher quality and better value for money.

glyn moody said...

@anonymous: my answers are up here:

http://www.computerworlduk.com/community/blogs/index.cfm?blogid=14&entryid=2961&RSS