The 3D printout of a Penrose Triangle that sparked a DMCA takedown claim.
When Seniorhelpline gave Hod Lipson a Breakthrough Award in 2007 for his small-scale 3D printer, [email protected], he told us that at-home fabrication was "a revolution waiting to happen." He was right. Today, almost anyone—even Jay Leno—can use free 3D design programs like 3Dtin to design a digital object, then turn those pixels into a physical object by using either their own 3D printer (such as a Makerbots) or a website that will print that item for them (such as ). The technology can be used to make parts that are difficult to build using traditional manufacturing, like small parts for Boeing 737s. It's been used to create jewelry, iPhone accessories, and even a customized prosthetic jaw. (And check back with PM tomorrow for our story about how to get started with 3D printing yourself.)
But according to Michael Weinberg, a staff attorney at advocacy group Public Knowledge, the idea that anyone can scan, design, and print anything will—like any revolution—ruffle some feathers. "It's a little bit of a disruptive technology," he said here at South by Southwest. "When you are disrupting, when you're making it so people don't have to do things anymore, the people who are disrupted, and the people who charge for those things, aren't always as excited as you are about them."
Weinberg used the Internet as an example of disruptive technology. "In the mid 90s, lot of people doing incredible things with computers, networked computers, all over the world," he said. "The disrupted industries and congress tried to find a solution, and in 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). Basically, it sets the rules of the game for digital copyright. DMCA is not all bad, but it doesn't necessarily reflect all the ways we would want things done if everyone who exists today had been tuned in in 1998."
Now, 3D printers aren't computers. The things that people can create or copy on a computer and then easily distribute, such as music files, are protected by copyright. But 3D printers work in the physical world. "While every photo and every article is protected by copyright, most physical things aren't protected by copyright or any kind of intellectual property copyright," Weinberg said. "Objects that do things can't be protected by copyright. Useful is drawn broadly. Clothing is a useful object. You can patent a pattern on a piece of clothing, but you can't patent the cut."
However, there have already been legal cases over 3D printing. A user on Thingiverse designed and printed the , a famous optical illusion that isn't supposed to be buildable in reality. Shortly thereafter, another user figured out how to print the Penrose—and posted the files on Thingiverse. , "and the 3D printing world freaked out," Weinberg said.
When someone sends a DMCA takedown, the article in question is removed (and if someone contests the takedown, the article is put back up). The problem with this case, Weinberg said, is that someone else invented the Penrose Prime, and an optical illusion might actually be considered a useful product. The case was settled when the user who initially figured out how to print the optical illusion dedicated the rights to the community and dropped the suit. "There have been times when people have downloaded props from movies to 3D printed websites, and companies send DMCA takedowns," Weinberg said. "The sites say, 'okay,' and take them down."
So far, Weinberg said, existing laws seem to be handling the 3D printing boom pretty well. But that could change. He said there are several ways to protect 3D printing, including introducing it to Congress now, and in a positive context. "It should not be introduced when someone comes in an says, 'This pirate box is ruining my business!'" Weinberg says.
The best way to protect 3D printing, though, is to use it. "The worst mistake would be to try to imagine a 3D printing dystopian future and then pass laws today that address those concerns in the dystopian future," Weinberg says. "That future would never have happened anyway, and the laws that you pass today are going to stop production innovation and shape it in a way that's not useful. So instead of imagining a bad thing in the future, have a little confidence in the hundreds of years of intellectual property law up till now, where it's always been possible to replicate physical objects. Ask: Is this a real problem? Are the laws we have now unable to address them? This technology is something worth protecting, or at least something worth not immediately smothering."