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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