Live From the Future: Preventing Intellectual Property Law from Screwing Up 3D Printing

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Today, we are releasing our newest Public Knowledge whitepaper: It Will Be Awesome if They Don't Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology.  The paper takes a look at how intellectual property law impacts the rapidly maturing technology of 3D printing, and how incumbents who feel threatened by its growth might try to use IP law to stop it.  Our issue page has videos showing 3D printing in action, as well as interviews with many of the people most active in today’s 3D printing community.

While I’m willing to bet that readers of this blog are familiar with intellectual property law, 3D printing may be something new.  In its simplest form, 3D printing is a way to turn bits into atoms, translating computer design files into real life objects.  Although this technology has existed for some time in high end design firms and research facilities, new, open source 3D printers like the RepRap and the MakerBot are finding a way to make this technology widely affordable and available. Since these projects are open source, they are constantly evolving and improving.  As a bonus, the RepRap can print out a substantial portion of its own parts, therefore making it a self-replicating machine.

The ability to print objects on demand has the potential to be just as disruptive as the ability to summon digital information from anywhere in the world.  Users can scan a 3D object, modify it using free, easy to use software, and print out a new version at home.  The printer can print moving parts, so items like assembled ball bearings can be made in a single print.  The MakerBot has been modified to print with frosting, instead of its usual medium of plastic.

Of course, not everyone welcomes disruptive technologies.  The ability to design and manufacture your own objects potentially impacts any number of existing businesses and industries.  In the fact of this disruption, many businesses will innovate and adapt.  New businesses will spring up in unexpected places.  However, businesses (and industries) unwilling or unable to adapt may go to Congress.  Following the playbook of the RIAA and MPAA, they will call 3D printers tools of piracy, and their users thieves.

One of the goals of this whitepaper is to prepare for this negative reaction before it happens.  If we organize now, when incumbents begin to cry piracy and theft, we will be able to point to innovation, job growth, and free expression.

I encourage you to read the whitepaper, and check out our issue page.  Among other things, the issue page has interviews with Makerbot's Bre Pettis and RepRap's Dr. Adrian Bowyer.  In the next few weeks we will put up more interviews with the 3D printing community.  Also, if you are in the EU or the UK, check out this great paper examining some of the same issues under your law.  Until then, enjoy!

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