DRM on 3D Printers is a Big Deal. Nathan Myhrvold’s Patent is Not.

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Recently, Antonio Regalado at Technology Review identified a patent on Digital Rights Management (DRM) for 3D printing.  The patent, granted to Nathan Myhrvold's company Intellectual Ventures (IV), initiated a wave of discussion about DRM and 3D printing.  While this is a discussion that is worth having, the existence of the patent it not particularly relevant to it.

DRM is a generic term for a suite of technologies that, in theory, allow people to control how others use digital information.  DRM is usually applied to things protected by copyright (like movies on DVD) in the hopes of preventing unauthorized copying.

DRM is problematic for many reasons, but two are particularly relevant to this discussion.  First, almost by definition, DRM cripples the functionality of devices or programs, making them defective by design.  As applied to 3D printing, DRM could transform a general purpose tool capable of making anything into a specialized tool that can only be used to create a handful of pre-approved items.  Such a transition at this point could cripple the growth of consumer 3D printing.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, DRM does not work.  The highest profile uses of DRM have been attempts to restrict unauthorized copying of works like music and movies (while the music industry has largely moved away from DRM, the movie industry clings firmly to it).  Despite being protected by increasingly sophisticated types of DRM, unauthorized copies of just about any movie released on DVD or Blu-Ray can easily be found online.  Since only one person needs to be smart enough to crack a given DRM in order for everyone to be able to circumvent it, DRM inevitably fails.

Unfortunately, that does not mean that DRM does not have an impact.  Although DRM does not prevent bad actors from making unauthorized copies of works, it does prevent good actors who wish to comply with the rules from making legitimate uses of them.  In this way, DRM imposes costs on consumers without granting any legitimate benefit to rightsholders.

Enter IV's patent.  The patent appears to be quite broad, and to cover many of the ways that DRM might be implemented on 3D printers.  Does it change anything?

Probably not.  When confronted with a digital disruptive technology, many people reflexively turn to DRM in an attempt to control the disruption.  IV's patent is not the first time someone has thought about this, and it will not be the last.

Also, the patent does not appear to represent an actual functioning DRM mechanism.  This probably should not come as a surprise.  Intellectual Ventures is widely known as a “non-practicing entity” by some and as a patent troll by others.  Their general strategy is to stake out an area and charge people to license their patents, not to actually develop technology to implement.

Furthermore, and this is important, having a patent does not allow you to force people to use the technology that you have patented.  Since the patent does not represent a way to implement 3D printed DRM, its existence does not really move 3D printing closer to a DRM world.

Finally, in some ways this patent could actually slow the adoption of DRM in the 3D printing community.  Assuming the broad patent survived a challenge in court (a big if), most people dreaming of imposing DRM on 3D printing would be forced to pay Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures a licensing fee.  That increases the rightholder cost of using DRM, which is a good thing.

The emergence of this patent has helped raise awareness of the possibility of using DRM in connection with 3D printing.  However, that awareness raising may ultimately prove to be its most relevant impact on 3D printing's development.

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