One of the most astonishing progressions, as covered by Humans Invent last November, is the ability to print prosthetics from human cells. It is now possible to fabricate working organs such as the liver and kidneys which will hopefully revolutionize health care, bringing an end to transplant waiting lists.
What is interesting this time around, though, is that 3D printers are being pitched directly to the consumer as opposed to companies or specialist research facilities. No, this doesn’t mean we will be able to make our own organs at home, but on a more basic level we will be able to make toys such as figurines or replacement parts for home appliances.
One of the leading companies making 3D printers is Makerbot Industries who launched the Replicator at this year’s CES. The basic version costs £1,130 and can make objects in one colour. For another couple of hundred pounds you can buy a model that creates objects in two colours. The machine follows the same principle as a normal computer printer except that melted plastic instead of ink comes out of the print head. The printer slowly builds up the layers of plastic which solidify, creating a 3D object.
In order for this to work the printer needs design instructions for the particular object – either a scanner takes a photo of the object and translates its measurements or it is done manually. This is where it starts to become controversial as Intellectual Property (IP) rears its litigiously ugly head. Makerbot’s resource for designs is on its website Thingiverse.com. This site is open source meaning any design uploaded there is shared with everyone. Last year a designer from the Netherlands called Ulrich Schwanitz managed to print a 3D version of the Penrose triangle illusion. He refused to give the design secrets away but instead allowed the print-out to be purchased through a 3D printing company.
Someone managed to work out Schwanitz’s design and put the instructions on Thingiverse.com for everyone to see. As a result, Schwanitz issued a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) take down notice to Makerbot demanding they pull the design instructions from the site. Thankfully the issue was resolved when Schwanitz backed down but this still raises questions for the future. When this product becomes cheaper and more available for the average consumer and not just the gadget enthusiast, will there be a whole slew of lawsuits?
The Chief executive of Makerbot, Bre Pettis, seems to have an almost naïve optimism about the future, perceiving an end to the capitalist market as we know it. He told the BBC, “I don’t think we need a marketplace. It’s a sharing world. We are at the dawn of the age of sharing where even if you try to sell things the world is going to share it anyway.”
We have seen how this world of ‘sharing’ has hit the music industry, with a total shake-up of the business model built around record labels and their exclusive ownership of artists’ work.
Lawyer Peter Hanna succinctly lays out the 3 subcategories of IP and their possible ramifications in a future world of prolific 3D printing on Ars Technica. He notes that theoretically all three subcategories, patent, copyright and trademark laws, could be infringed by theses machines. If you patent a design and somebody fabricates the product with a 3D printer, this would be a direct infringement of the patent. But designers don’t need to patent their products to be protected by law, as Hanna says, “Some people forget that an original creative work is copyrighted the moment it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This means the design files themselves are protected by law regardless of whether an object is ever made from them. The trademark would be infringed if the person fabricating the object using 3D printing included the logo or manufacturers symbol on the original product.
In October Humans Invent featured Sculpteo 3D that can print in silver. While this is an amazing advance in technology, it’s possible all three subcategories of IP would be infringed if it was used to make, say, an exact copy of an expensive piece of trademarked silver jewellery.
So, if the technology develops sufficiently to make home 3D printing a viable option for a large number of people, are we going to see ordinary people prosecuted for downloading and printing their own ‘fakes’. Or will the home 3D printer lead to an open source design movement that genuinely challenges the major manufacturers and their traditional advantage of economies of scale.
For sure, the law and 3D printing will certainly be locking horns some time soon.
Give us your views on 3D printing. What does the future hold for the breakthrough innovation? Could we have another Napster case on our hands?
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