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The Next Great Disruptive Technology

As prices drop and availability increases, 3D printers are expected to become a feature in many ordinary homes in the coming years. But arguments over copyright issues threaten to derail this process of democratisation.

by Sabine Blanc On June 21, 2012

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Journaliste digitale en mutation perpétuelle, et j'aime ça.


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Public Knowledge, a US organisation which seeks to defend digital liberties, heralded the coming battle in the eloquent title of its white paper – “It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology“. And now it’s begun. The first notifications of takedown requests for 3D files are appearing in dribs and drabs, the first trickle in what’s likely to become a steady deluge.

As the democratisation of 3D printers and scanners continues, such takedown request will grow significantly. Just as the majority of households now own a computer, these little machines should become widespread in homes in the coming years. Prices continue to fall, with some models already available for less than €400. Soon anyone will be able to use software to create a blueprint of an object, and then print that object out, layer by layer. Or conversely, to scan an object directly into a computer, reproduce a 3D blueprint and then post the file online.

It appears to have been the Thingiverse site which got the legal ball rolling back in the winter of 2011, with the case of the Penrose triangle. The file-sharing site launched by MakerBot, an American company which makes the most popular consumer 3D printer, was instructed to remove a file containing a blueprint for the geometric figure previously deemed impossible to manufacture. Ulrich Schwanitz, a designer, had seemingly solved the puzzle, and his blueprint had then been posted online without his consent. In response Schwanitz invoked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a US law passed in 1998 that marked a crackdown on perceived copyright violations.

The Ultimaker 3D printer (CC) Ophelia Noor for Owni

Wired recently reported a similar request sent to Thingiverse by the English toy manufacturer Games Workshop. An individual had reproduced two of Games Workshop’s figures without their consent. The magazine offered some idea of the ferocity of the battle that’s now begun, and the firepower available to those involved.

You thought Hollywood and record labels were powerful lobbyists, crushing Napster and suing file-sharers? Wait until you see what the manufacturing industry can do. The American Chamber of Commerce is the single largest lobbyist on Capitol Hill, spending $60 million a year.

Beyond the takedown notices themselves, Michael Weinberg, author of Public Knowledge’s white paper, highlights the complexity of the legal issues involved, and the ensuing risk of parties abusing them as a tool.

On its own, an increase in DMCA takedown notices is not necessarily a bad thing.  The DMCA notice and takedown process is the way that US law deals with the large amount of user-generated content online, and many companies and individuals use the process responsibly.

However, one does have to worry about the quality of those notices.  The copyright status of many physical objects can be a bit more complicated than other things like movies or pictures.  If it looks like companies and individuals are using takedown notices illegitimately, it would begin to raise concerns.

The site Chilling Effects lists any such withdrawal requests made in the name of copyright compliance, even if it means exposing certain editors’ ignorance. It’s an initiative of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the oldest and most powerful American digital liberties group, in partnership with the legal departments of several American universities. The “chilling effect” refers to the inhibitory effect these takedown requests might have on someone unfamiliar with the law.

Indeed, the Penrose Triangle case was far from clear, as the EFF pointed out.

Copyright in what, you might ask—the original image? If someone else created the earlier illustration of this triangle, then Mr. Schwanitz can’t have the copyright in the image unless he somehow acquired it, or an exclusive right, from the owner.

Nor can he claim a copyright in the process of converting the image to 3D; it’s a neat trick, but process isn’t protected by copyright. Finally, the rendering in 3D form doesn’t inject enough creativity into the model for Mr. Schwanitz to claim it’s separately copyrightable from the two-dimensional image. What we have here is another apparently baseless DMCA takedown.

The coming revolution

The 3D printing community can, however, call upon the precedent of the downloading of cultural works. In anticipation of the legal quagmire, the community has also been organising its lobbying wing. The Public Knowledge white paper is just one part of that project.

The Makerbot 3D Printer (CC) Ophelia Noor for Owni

Last spring, Public Knowledge hosted the 3D/DC event in Washington DC, where the people involved in the democratisation of 3D printing met with US legislators. People such as Bre Pettis of MakerBot and Hod Lipson, one of the founders of the Fab@Home project. They sought to convince the gathered politicians and lawmakers not to kill off this coming revolution while its still in its infancy. Michael Weinberg explains their approach.

One of our goals is to ensure that legislators understand the 3D community behind the process. We want them to see 3D printing technology as the legitimate technology that it is.

We’re taking some lessons from digital copyright. We want to make sure that 3D printing is presented to legislators in a positive context. So if someone wants to regulate 3D printing, they’ll understand the value it produces.

Sometimes I explain it like this: I don’t want the first contact that legislators have with 3D printing to be a person who arrives in their office saying, “This pirating company destroyed my business, we need laws to eliminate it.”

For now, Weinberg says, it’s too early to measure the fruits of these efforts.

If everything works perfectly, one of the best outcomes would be that nothing happens. All the work we do now will be tested the first time that someone will try to outlaw 3D printing or restrict its use. That’s when we’ll see if we’ve succeeded.

In the European Union, the “debate could be brought up on the occasion of the likely revision of the IPRED directive, particularly around the notion of commercial scale,” said Felix Tréguer of La Quadrature du Net. Passed in 2004, the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive is the European equivalent of the DMCA. This winter, the European Commission unveiled its roadmap (PDF) on the issue, stating that “there is need to modernise the directive in order to make it an appropriate legal tool against crimes committed on the Internet“.

An economy

Rather than pushing the general principle of freedom of sharing as an end in itself, the argument put forward is the possibility that an ecosystem exists. A community evoked this winter in the happy epilogue of the case of the Penrose triangle.

Ulrich Schwanitz has decided to drop his DMCA claims and place his design in the public domain! I am not privy to the reasoning behind it, but perhaps he was inspired by the thousands of other open designs here on Thingiverse? I would like to publicly re-iterate my words of encouragement to Dr. Schwanitz to post his designs to Thingiverse. I’d like to show him what an awesome community we are, and that making money is still possible while giving away your design.


Image Credits: Ophelia Noor for Owni / Creative Tools CC (BY)

Related: The 3-D Typeface Alphabet

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