The Contested Future of 3D Printing

Pictures like this are likely making the manufacturers of tiny plastic toy rockets very nervous.

My last post, which discussed the history of music piracy, demonstrated that those who profit from established technological systems have a strong incentive to resist novel innovations, and are often able to do so quite effectively through lobbying. In the case of the music industry, the gradual development of a legal system based on music as a set of physical goods (CDs, tapes, vinyl, etc.) considerably slowed the adoption of online music distribution systems, and completely killed the digital audio tape. In this post, I want to apply these insights to an emerging technology which I believe will eventually be the subject of a similar battle between innovators and entrenched interests: 3D printing.

The current excitement around 3D printing is pretty understandable. 3D printing could produce everything from rocket engines and houses to shot glasses far more easily and cheaply than any conventional manufacturing method. There may come a time when consumer goods can simply be downloaded from the internet and inexpensively printed at home. Particularly exciting is the RepRap: a 3D printer designed to be able to print most of the components necessary make another one of itself, making it the first ever self-reproducing machine. Reprap’s ability to print its own components means that it will also be able to upgrade itself, meaning that with enough people working on it, the reprap could become very powerful very quickly. The implications of this are staggering, and as soon as I have the time and money, I’m buying a reprap.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that exciting technologies tend to be exciting because they challenge existing social and technical norms, and that  there are usually a lot of very powerful people with a vested interest in the maintenance of those norms. For every exciting new innovation, there is likely to be somebody who would like to see it disappear. It’s not too difficult to guess who these people are in the case of 3D printing. Even if household 3D printers never manage to effectively make anything more complex than the shot-glasses depicted above, there is still a lot of investment, both financial and political, sunk into making shot glasses and similar small consumer goods the old fashioned way. The manufacturing industry might be willing to adopt 3D printing into its own methods, but it certainly doesn’t want to see you bypassing them and printing things on your own. The commercial transportation industry might also have something to say about the matter. Given that, it seems inevitable that at some point, 3D printing is going to come under attack.

This attack will probably start with a political and rhetorical justification. It wouldn’t do for these people to just come out and say “We should ban 3D printing because it would hurt our profits”. Nor can we expect politicians, flush with lobbyist cash, to simply start passing bills banning or restricting 3D printing without explanation. Such legislation would get noticed, and so it will need at least a veneer of public acceptability that will have to be created. Those who are opposed to the expansion of 3D printing will have to make a case for its restriction. Once that is accomplished, it will be possible to start pushing for legislation that will marginalize it. Obviously we can’t predict exactly what strategies the industry will use to do this, but it is worthwhile to consider which tactics might be used, so that the 3D printing community and wider public can identify and respond to them. Accordingly, what follows is a hypothetical account of how I might try to legally marginalize 3D printing. It’s a fairly simple three-step process:

Step 1: Legitimize government intervention in 3D printing.

A first step for any legislative strategy is to place the target within the domain of legislation. In the case of 3D printing, this could involve the establishment of some kind of legal and technical system designed to monitor the contents of the websites providing blueprints for 3D printers, or the imposition of restrictions on the sale and manufacture of 3D printers. The recent controversy over 3D printed weapons suggests an obvious way that this could be justified. The threat of 3D printed assault rifles could easily be used by lobbyists and politicians to justify the monitoring, and censoring of websites. Other concerns that could be used for this might include the health effects or environmental impacts of 3D printing technology.

Step 2: Use this intervention as a way of protecting patents. 

During this stage, the actions of the manufacturing industry could very closely follow those of the recording industry as it responded to services such as Napster. Once a system exists to monitor 3D printing, industrial interests will argue for its use to be expanded to include the enforcement of patent law. This kind of legislative creep occurs all the time, and is frequently driven by industrial interests. Consider, for example, the fact that anti-terrorism laws designed to foil 9/11 style attacks have recently been re-shaped by the meat industry for use against animal rights activists. Given this, it seems highly plausible that once a monitoring system is put in place to avoid the dangers of 3D printed guns, there will be pressure for the same system to be used to enforce the design patents on paperweights and novelty shot-glasses.

Step 3: Use a very loose interpretation of patent infringement to take down most useful 3D printing websites

There is a patent of some sort for nearly every single manufactured object. When you consider design patents, many of which don’t cover much more than an object’s aesthetics, and the already well-established practice of patent trolling, it becomes easy to imagine how manufacturing interests might start trying to sue as many open-source designers as possible for infringement. This practice will allow clever lawyers to use patent law to take down any 3D printing design that even remotely resembles their clients’ patents. While it would be impossible to stamp out 3D printing entirely in this way, a few high-profile lawsuits against either designers or the websites hosting their designs could have a chilling effect, reducing the revolutionary potential of the technology and possibly reducing its use to artists and others who design and print things of limited commercial value.

This all might sound a bit conspiratorial, but it is based on the pretty widely-recognized fact that industries tend to protect their interests by any means available. That’s their responsibility to their shareholders, and it’s something that we would do well to look out for whenever we are excited about the radical potential of a new technology. I don’t know exactly how the manufacturing industry will attempt to protect their interests, but I am reasonably confident that they will attempt to steer public debates 3D printing towards policies that are more in their favour. While navigating these controversies, we as a society should be careful to determine whose interests are being advanced by the arguments we hear. And we should acknowledge that there is the possibility that, like with music piracy, we may need to break the law in order to secure the technological future we want.

But 3D printing seems pretty cool, so it’s probably worth the fight.

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A brief history of music piracy, and why it may be a good thing

This warning might just be standing in the way of technological progress.

I did a presentation a few months ago music piracy, and some interesting historical facts came up that I think are pertinent to the endless debate on the subject. Typically, this conflict is understood to be a highly adversarial one between the music industry and its consumers. In our research, we decided to take a transitions theory approach to the problem; specifically to see what lawbreaking can mean for innovation. The historical evidence on this is surprising, and it reveals some important facts about copyright infringement that have not been adequately considered.

It turns out that music copyright is actually a very novel institution, relative to the history of music generally. Up until the 1770s, artists could expect to have their music copied, re-arranged, shipped across the pond, performed, copied again, shipped back home, and re-arranged once more. They had no right to any recompense from this, and it was understood to simply be a part of the music business that they had to deal with. Romantic notions of authorial genius made such practices illegitimate with the first copyright laws, but these laws were usually ineffective. Near the turn of the twentieth century, home pianos created a massive demand for cheap sheet music, which certain individuals were more than happy to dater to, thanks in part to the invention of lithography. To combat this, sheet music companies had to resort to extra-legal measures including raiding the pirates’ houses while police looked the other way. Their findings in these raids eventually allowed them to frame piracy as a criminal conspiracy, facilitating the passage of harsher anti-piracy legislation. But this still had a limited impact and the sheet music companies were eventually forced to reduce their prices to compete with the pirates.

Since that early conflict, piracy has been pretty much a constant presence in the music business, as have the recording industry’s quixotic attempts to eliminate it. While pirates were generally able to get away with their piracy at almost every turn, the recording companies did score one important victory, namely the gradual development of the legal system around music copyright, which turned a legal structure that didn’t even exist at the turn of the century into something quite coercive. Widespread bootlegging of records during the 1960s and 1970s, for example, prompted the music industry to lobby for the Rome Convention, which made unauthorized copying of music illegal. Later, the invention of the easily copyable cassette tape lead to the passage of even stronger anti-music piracy laws in the United States, but these explicitly allowed for home copying so as to preserve the legality of mix-tapes. In 1992, the record industry actually managed to completely block a new innovation-the Digital Audiotape-due to its ease of creating high-fidelity copies of music.

With our 20/20 hindsight, we might dismiss the blocking of digital audio-tape appears as a half-measure which would be completely ineffective in the face of the massive disruption represented by the internet. For all its importance, however, the internet took a while to get itself noticed by the record industry. In fact, a stream of dot-com boom entrepreneurs looking to set up digital music services in the 1990s were nearly all rebuffed by the record companies whose intellectual property they needed. One quote from Sony Music executive Al Smith, addressed to one such entrepreneur, is particularly telling of the labels’ attitude: “Look, Kearby. My job is to keep you down. We don’t want you to succeed”. Smith’s message is clear: Sony and the other recording companies were comfortable with the music distribution system they had set up, and were not interested in adapting to new technology.

And then Napster happened. In the midst of today’s heavy-handed approach towards piracy, it is easy to forget that the illegality of piracy was far from a sure thing at the turn of the millennium. Remember: existing American law explicitly made non-commercial copying legal and while Napster did intend to be a commercial enterprise. While it provided the infrastructure, Napster itself never copied any music. Napster expected to win the lawsuit, and to establish themselves as a legitimate business making money off of merchandising and concert advertising.

Of course, this all collapsed when they eventually lost. While Napster was succeeded by a veritable parade of imitation services, such as Kazaa, Limewire and Bittorrent, another major development was in the works that would expand Napster’s legacy beyond piracy into the very structure of legitimate music distribution channels. That development was iTunes. Today, Steve Jobs gets a lot of credit for being the impetus behind the technical aspects of iTunes and the iPod, but he still needed access to the intellectual property held by the record labels in order to establish the service. It turns out that Napster had considerably softened the labels’ position on online music from the blunt dimissals of Al Smith a decade earlier. In fact, the music industry was so desperate to get some kind of cut from online activity that they actually gave Jobs a very favorable good deal on royalties. And that negotiation opened the floodgates for online services such as iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, CDBaby, and YouTube. It occurred at the turn of the twenty-first century almost exactly as it had at the turn of the twentieth: illegal copying forced powerful industrial interests to *ahem* face the music.

This history tells us three important things about music piracy. The first is that by forcing sheet music producers to lower their prices, piracy at the turn of the twentieth century actually assisted in the realization of market efficiency. The second is that the laws that support the recording industry against pirates were, perhaps unsurprisingly, largely the creations of that same recording industry. This implies that they were intrinsically tied to a music distribution system based on the sale of physical objects such as LPs, cassettes, and CDs. Thirdly and perhaps more importantly for my case, without online piracy there was no economic incentive for the recording industry to embrace the internet.

Does this mean that the music industry has no genuine ethical right to defend their intellectual property against pirates? Not necessarily. In fact, it depends on what you believe to be the real legislative purpose of music copyright. If you think copyright is an absolute and inalienable right afforded to artists and the companies representing them, then none of this history matters; criminals who violate the absolute rights of citizens should be punished. Alternatively, however, you might see music copyright as a strategic policy tool designed to incentive creativity. If this is the case,  then piracy may very well be justified on the grounds that it has on multiple occasions forced the record industry to adapt to new innovations, both technological and musical, when they might not otherwise have done so.

The nature of copyright is a philosophical question on which this post will remain agnostic, but there is one further point to be made from this history. The history of piracy and the recording industry has implications for technological transitions of all sorts. If the law is understood to be a part of a socio-technical regime as this case suggests it should be, then law-breaking can be a crucial means by which new technologies succeed in the market and transform systems and societies. To put it more bluntly, we may well be indebted to criminals for more than just our online music services. And that’s a fascinating thought.

Further Reading: 

Borfe, L., 2004. Where have all the good times gone? The rise and fall of the record industry. London: Atlantic Books.

Gronow, P., and Saunoi, I., trans. C. Morley., 1988. An International History of the Recording Industry. London: Cassell.

Johns, A., 2009. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Tehranian, J., 2011.  Infringement Nation: Copyright 2.0 and You. London: Oxford.