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The general reaction to the idea of expanding DRM to 3D printing has been, encouragingly, negative. DRM has completely failed to slow the supply of unauthorized copies of music, movies, and books online. At the same time it has succeeded in frustrating perfectly legitimate uses of copyrighted content. There is no reason to think that either of those outcomes would be different if DRM was applied to 3D printing. However, there could be a way to apply DRM-like techniques to 3D printing in a positive, consumer-friendly way.
Two distinct categories of DRM
Broadly speaking, there are two types of DRM. The first is DRM that focuses on the needs of sellers. This is DRM that is generally associated with music, movies, and books, and basically treats all users like they are criminals a click away from committing copyright infringement. The second is DRM that focuses on the needs of the buyers. Truth be told, this is not really DRM at all. Instead, this is a bundle of techniques that allow users to trace the origin of a particular good. It has more in common with trademark than copyright, and could also be thought of as digital verification technology (DVT).
Pro-seller DRM, the kind that does not work
DRM, as a stand-alone protection for copyright-protected works, is fatally flawed. It assumes that as long as an average user cannot circumvent copy protection, no unauthorized copies will be made. However, because the protected works are digital, an average user does not have to be able to circumvent copy protection. As soon as one not-so-average user breaks the digital lock and creates an unprotected copy, that copy is available to everyone. Average users do not need to be able to break the lock themselves – they can just find the unprotected copy made by the person who broke it for them.
Because of this flaw, DRM does not actually provide a benefit to creators. However, it does impose a cost on users. DRM can cause platform lock-in, making it hard to transfer things like movies or books between devices. It can also create a barrier to otherwise legitimate uses – a problem that the Copyright Office tries but fails to address every three years.
The fundamental weakness of pro-seller DRM is that consumers have no real interest in maintaining its integrity. A legitimate purchaser who only wants to use media within the scope of DRM-allowed parameters never really comes into contact with it. A legitimate purchaser who wants to use media in a way that is legal but exceeds the DRM parameters sees it as a nuisance (at best). An illegitimate copier circumvents the DRM herself or simply finds a copy that has already been separated from DRM. None of these users has an incentive to support the integrity of the DRM scheme.
Pro-Consumer DRM, a kind that could work
Contrast this traditional role for DRM with a slightly different application – digital verification technology (DVT). The role of DVT is not to prevent unauthorized copying on behalf of sellers. Instead, DVT is designed to assure consumers that the file they have will produce the object they want.
While this type of verification could be used in the digital world (and is used in the form of checksums), in general it is not necessary. A digital copy is, by definition, an exact copy. A copy of a movie downloaded from iTunes can be copied identically tens, hundreds, thousands of times. For an end user, the original authorized copy will produce exactly the same movie as the thousandth copy.
The transition from digital to physical makes copying less reliable. The same digital file can produce meaningfully different physical objects when printed by different types of 3D printers. Even two identical 3D printers will produce slightly different physical objects.
Sometimes these differences will not matter to a consumer. But other times they will. It is not hard to imagine that someone printing a functional part for an industrial machine would be interested in knowing that the source file is the file that will produce the correct object on the 3D printer being used, not just a reasonable approximation of that file.
This is where DVT comes in. Not every consumer will be interested in using DVT for every print. Someone buying “designer” sunglasses from a table set up on the sidewalk may not be interested in verifying where the sunglasses were really made or that they were designed correctly. Similarly, someone downloading a file for designer sunglasses from some dark corner of the internet may not care about the file’s source.
However, there are plenty of instances where consumers will care. After all, consumers care about being able to verify that their medicine really came from a factory that was using active ingredients. They could also care that someone who knew what they were doing designed the latch holding the hood of their car shut – or the bracket supporting the shelf over their head. This does not mean that the file the consumer is using is an authorized copy. Rather, it means that the file for the object is actually a copy of the “real” file – not just a file that has been reversed engineered with an unknown degree of accuracy.
Every person using a 3D printer may not want, or care, to implement this technology. But it is likely that many will. Unlike DRM, this consumer interest means that DVT might actually work. Instead of assuming the end user is a criminal, DVT enlists the consumer as a willing partner.
A Useful Path Forward
Work is already being done on this type of technology. For example, Professors Daniel G. Aliaga and Mikhail J. Atallah at Purdue University have been working on embedding signatures in physical objects. This information could be ignored by an uninterested consumer, but could be highly valuable to a consumer searching for assurances that the file they are using came from a trusted designer and printer.
Of course, there are also individuals and companies discussing more traditional DRM in the context of 3D printing. They are free to continue what will likely be a wasted effort, at least unless they begin trying to require all 3D printers to implement it.
Going forward, hopefully innovators will focus on ways to give consumers who want it confidence in the source of their digital files and, ultimately, physical goods. As 3D printing becomes more prominent and 3D printed goods become more common, quality will be critical to convincing the public that the technology is more than a fad. Allocating development resources in this way, instead of in a futile attempt to prevent unauthorized copies, will be much more beneficial in the long term.