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3-D Printing and Piracy

The New York Times recently wrote an article about MakerBot, a consumer grade 3-D printer that uses plastic to create physical objects like piggy banks and Darth Vader heads. Although the technology for 3-D printing has been around for quite some time, MakerBot is one of the first 3-D printers affordable enough for a home user (although, at $1300 or so, it is an expensive home purchase.) As the article states, MakerBot’s creators encourage its users to share their designs, and one creation can be printed by another user by transferring a data file just like a picture or sound clip is transferred now.

One of the well known side effects of the easy information transferability created by the internet is piracy. Entire websites are dedicated to allowing users to share information, some of it legal; much of it copyrighted, and the users of such sites are often well ahead of attempts by the music, video, and game industries to stop illegal sharing. Complicated digital rights management software, verification codes, periodic authenticity checks, and other creative methods of ensuring that only legitimate users (read: purchasers) of software, games, and movies can use those products have had virtually no impact on the ability of relatively unsophisticated users to share and use unpaid for software. Even lawsuits have not deterred the majority of illicit downloaders. Despite the best efforts of the various distribution agencies, software is often “cracked” (the protection scheme is disabled) within days of release – sometimes the software is available on sharing websites even before release to the general public. Worse, the data protection schemes employed by the distribution companies sometimes cause legitimate users unforeseen trouble, from an inability to use the software they’ve purchased to the failure of other components of their system and, in some cases, the digital rights management (DRM) software has compromised users computers and left them vulnerable to hacks and virii.

The distribution companies insist that piracy has cost their industries hundreds of millions of dollars. Pirates often point out record profits and suggest that the distribution companies are overstating their damages (and particularly when pirates have been sued in court for hundred of thousands of dollars in damages stemming from their sharing a few dozen songs.) Whichever group you sympathize with, there is no disputing that there has been -some- impact on the distribution agencies. However, because only software can take advantage of the internet’s transferability, the impact of piracy has so far been limited to information: Music, movies, books, and the like are sharable whereas physical objects like coffee mugs and televisions have been outside the scope of pirates.

MakerBot, however, introduces the potential for piracy of physical objects, and the existing permissive (if illegal) information sharing culture suggests that users will readily take advantage of MakerBot’s ability to create physical objects on demand. Whereas the CD-RW took the traditionally difficult task of pressing CD’s for sale and allowed users to burn their own music discs for mere pennies, MakerBot and its ilk could put an end to the endless trinkets purchased by people for lack of any other way to acquire those objects. Certainly plastic cups, ping pong balls, and army men are printable by MakerBot, but if those are printable then why not Legos, Tupperware, and ice trays? If plastic can be printed now (and think of all the things made of plastic that you use) how long will it be before steel and glass are likewise printable? What about hybrid objects?

MakerBot introduces the possibility that, before too long, schematics for Playstations will be shared just like the information for Playstation games are now. When hybrid products are printable at home, interesting possibilities arise, including the potential to print a newer, more efficient printer. Technology, by creating the next product that will replace it, feeds on its own momentum and, aside from the cost of materials and the capabilities of the printer, there is no reason why people could not print whatever television, home appliance, or vehicle suits their fancy. After all, if you could print your own Lamborghini for pennies on the dollar as compared to the MSRP, wouldn’t you at least consider the possibility?

If information piracy has taught us anything, it’s that distribution companies cannot stop the sharing of information. MakerBot’s creators have tried to encourage a culture of sharing, and their users seem to be buying into the idea. I doubt that Lego is shaking in their corporate boots just now, but perhaps they ought to consider making something other than a plastic block soon.

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