From Bits to Atoms: 3D Printing and the Future of IP

by Jarred Taylor

The Economist (among others) has recently reported on a rising technology called “3D printing.”  A moderately-sized machine (that you can buy outright or build yourself) reads a design file on your computer and creates a desired object by “printing” it from bottom to top, layer-by-layer.  It’s been used to create everything from jewelry to replacement car parts, and there are efforts being made to print viable replacement bones, joints, and even organs.  And that’s not all: companies are already marketing 3D scanners that can create a detailed model of any object that you rotate in front of it.

That’s right: say hello to Star Trek‘s replicator.

For the past few decades, copyright law has been struggling with the relatively new ability for the average person to create perfect digital copies of music, videos, images, and text at effectively zero cost.  In the coming decades, copyright law will face an entirely new and potentially more harrowing challenge: the rise of the ability to create perfect physical copies of pretty much anything and everything, by anyone and everyone.

The implications are obvious.  Why would I buy a new box of Legos when I can just download the block designs and print my own?  Why would I go to the store to replace that comb I lost if I can just find the design on BitTorrent and print it in minutes?  But the possibilities for creativity are equally plain.  Just like blogging and social networking technology has inspired a world of citizen journalists, so might 3D printing inspire a world of citizen designers and manufacturers.

Many believe that 3D printing will never take off on a wide scale because the hardware is so expensive and the software too difficult to navigate.  Sound familiar?  It’s exactly the same skepticism leveled at personal computers a few decades ago.  Remember that not that long ago, the smallest computers took up entire rooms and operated using magnetic tape and punch cards.  Ken Olson, the former CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation, said in 1977 that “there is no good reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”  Today, that is probably true, because most people want their computers in the backpacks or in their pockets.

It is true that few people today know how to use 3D design software to create models suitable for 3D printing.  But nowadays, these skills are being offered to high school students.  What’s more, the software models are simple digital files: they can easily be traded online just like music and movies are today.  As with computers, the hardware costs are sure to go down as printers are perfected and components are standardized.

Any company that thought it was immune from digital piracy because its products were not readily reducible to or reproducible by 1’s and 0’s has a big surprise in store.  It looks like music and movie sales might have been only the first casualties in the wave of the disruption triggered by personal computing technology.  It will be fascinating to see how the law reacts to a technology that was positively inconceivable at copyright’s inception.  One hopes that lawmakers will reasonably account for the creative potential of this technology, and balance it against the justifiable fears of IP infringement.

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