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Tech Talk: Printing carnage?

The Mojo 3D Printer from Stratasys is the industry's first professional-grade complete 3D printing system for under $10,000 USD. — Reuters/Stratasys Photo
The Mojo 3D Printer from Stratasys is the industry's first professional-grade complete 3D printing system for under $10,000 USD. — Reuters/Stratasys Photo

Until recently, 3D printers were primarily used for testing and prototyping in industrial and academic circles.

These were closely monitored and controlled environments, so the technology was not a threat to anyone. We had already predicted in one of our previous issues that whenever 3D printing is made commercially available to consumers, it would raise copyrighting issues as well as ethical implications.

Company’s perspective

The patent landscape for 3D printing and the underlying machines and methods are somewhat alien to the general public at this time, but from a copyrighting perspective, manufacturers and distributors of 3D printers are almost completely insulated from secondary liability for infringement.

Therefore, unless companies directly encourage users to violate copyrights or ‘the legal term distributors who operate with the proven intent to induce end users to infringe’, they are free to distribute their products as they please and any copyright infringement will be solely on the user and not the company (Precedent: Sony v. Universal, a seminal Supreme Court case from 1983).

This applies to any technology that is capable of producing devices capable of copyright infringement.

User’s perspective

As for the actual users, the liability related to 3D printing will be severe. Pirating a game or a movie can have perpetrator(s) sentenced to 25 years in prison and a multi-million dollar fine in some cases.

Unfortunately there will be cases of 3D printers being used for unauthorised duplication of copyrighted works (distribution is another charge altogether). The somewhat controversial question remains on how the law will tackle the issues arising from 3D printing.

The migration of 3D printing technology from the lab to a common household is rapidly making progress, and as is the case with technology and its exponential growth, it will likely accelerate rapidly because of its low-cost and self-replicating design.

As it so happens, this migration coincides with the initiation of a comprehensive legislative review of copyright laws (SOPA/PIPA/ACTA, et al). This creates an opportunity for policy makers to revisit the legal status of copying for personal use. Under the current system, copying for personal use arguably falls under the heading of ‘fair use’.

The issue has been further complicated over the years by an increasingly expansive interpretation of what counts as a commercial (and therefore market-harming) use of a copyrighted work.

Simply put, there are too many interpretations on how the law works, and each one can mean the difference between freedom and prison. Under this rather expansive interpretation, every unauthorised copy – even a copy made only for personal use – is viewed as ‘commercial’ in nature, because it theoretically represents a lost sale for the copyright owner.

If a consumer downloads and prints out designs for a product, such as an Iron Man suit or an action figure, they are acquiring something that Marvel sells, so in effect that is a lost sale. On the other end of the spectrum, fan art is not covered under legal licenses. You can create whatever you want as a fan, as long as you don’t sell it. Of course, history shows that companies have been completely arbitrary on what they consider art and what they consider plagiarism.

If one can print an action figure, then there is no stopping us from printing a collectible item and selling it as an original, at least there is no ambiguity about this being illegal.

Safety perspective

Last month, a University of Texas law student, Cody Wilson, successfully fired a 3D printed gun at a firing range near Austin. The first prototype lasted only six shots. Wilson made the gun plans free to download until the State Department had them taken down for security reasons.

Experts are of the opinion that the modern printer available to users (example The Cube) is incapable of producing working firearms. Such a weapon would require far more advanced machinery to produce than what you get with a household desktop 3D printer.

The plastic gun fired by Wilson was made with an $8,000 3D printer bought on eBay, and the firing pin was made from metal. Suffice to say, the desktop 3D printer does not have the physical specifications to successfully replicate something as complex as a gun.

On top of that, Cubify ships The Cube with a service that make sure that every object being printed is approved by the Cube servers first, which means a refusal to print anything that qualifies as a weapon.

It is an invasion of privacy, but as far as guns are concerned, this is probably a good thing. It remains to be seen if these services will detect and halt production on anything that resembles a weapon, for example a non-traditional gun, but at least they are headed in the right direction.

With this technology available, companies can easily stop most of their material from being pirated, though it might be a matter of time before a patch or a crack will be created that will bypass the verification from servers.

Fortunately, no software crack or patch exists to replicate industrial strength production value. In some countries with liberal gun laws, it would always be easier to buy a real firearm, rather than print it.

Conclusion

As it is a new development in the world of technology, laws aren’t clear on how to regulate it. Until a product goes mainstream and starts presenting corporations with copyright infringement issues, we will not be able to see the situation in black or white.

It took the software industry decades before laws could be put forth and enforced; and they are still being revised around the world even today. 3D printers may end up requiring separate legislation altogether.