Thursday, April 7, 2011

The next Napster? Copyright questions as 3D printing comes of age

By Peter Hanna

The Penrose Triangle is as elegant as it is impossible—much like M.C. Escher’s drawings, it presents a two-dimensional illusion that the eye interprets as three-dimensional. The task of effectively creating this illusion in three dimensions, without resorting to hidden openings or gimmicky twists, seemed daunting until a Netherlands-based designer named Ulrich Schwanitz succeeded in printing the object recently. But Schwanitz, who posted a YouTube video of his design achievement in action, wouldn’t share his secret with the world. Instead, he made his “impossible triangle” available for purchase through Shapeways, a company that fabricates custom 3D designs, for $70.

Within weeks of Schwanitz’s “discovery,” however, a 3D modeler (and former Shapeways intern) named Artur Tchoukanov watched the video and figured out how to recreate the shape. He then uploaded instructions to Thingiverse, an open-source repository of 3D models and content. BoingBoing picked up the story (well, part of it), and “wrongly” credited Tchoukanov as the initial creator of the object.

The same day the story ran, Schwanitz sent Thingiverse a DMCA takedown notice and demanded that the site remove Tchoukanov’s design (and a related one) because it allegedly infringed Schwanitz’s copyright. Although the copyright claim was questionable at best—was Schwanitz asserting copyright in the 3D design file, the image, or the structure itself?—Thingiverse nevertheless complied with the notice and removed the offending designs.

A few days later, after coming under Internet scrutiny, Schwanitz rescinded his DMCA complaint and promised to release his shape into the public domain. But the damage was done. As Cory Doctorow eloquently put it, Schwanitz “became the inventor of something much more substantial than a 3D Penrose Triangle—he became the inventor of copyright threats over open 3D repositories.”

Schwanitz’s DMCA takedown notice was indeed a milestone for Thingiverse, which had operated free of any public accusations of patent or copyright infringement since it was founded. As a result of the incident, Thingiverse updated its legal page with DMCA language. But the complaint spoke to something broader, and far more significant for 3D printing as a new technology: Schwanitz’s takedown was the first shot in the next theater of the intellectual property (IP) wars. It was also the first formal attempt to apply copyright law to regulate content on a 3D printing repository of any kind.

While Ars readers have enjoyed great coverage of 3D printing-related topics, the general public still isn't familiar with the technology. Indeed, many of my legal colleagues were baffled as I explained how any physical object can now be scanned to generate a CAD (computer-aided design) file and later recreated—anywhere, anytime—using a 3D printer. All agreed that such a technology would have unprecedented implications for intellectual property law (and vice versa).

As with all technology, as 3D printing becomes simpler, more powerful, and more common, it will catch the eyes of more lawyers, regulators, and, of course, individual designers like Ulrich Schwanitz. And that will mean conflict. Here's a primer on some of the key legal issues that will frame the upcoming battles.

A disruptor like no other

Though still in its infancy, personal 3D printing technology already shows the same disruptive potential as the original printing press. Just as moveable type spread across Europe and democratized knowledge, the proliferation of 3D printers eventually promises to democratize creation. Broken dishwasher part? Download the relevant CAD file and print it out in plastic. While Amazon made trips to the store seem dated, 3D printing will make ordering (some) things online feel positively quaint.

Most people think of “printing” as a strictly 2D affair, but 3D printing works much like its 2D cousin, the inkjet printer, though it builds up a succession of layers to form its objects. Such printers can cost between thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars (a build-it-yourself model, the RepRap, can be assembled for a few hundred bucks).

The fabrication process begins with a 3D design file, created from scratch or drawn from a 3D scan of an object. Software deconstructs the 3D image into a series of 2D cross-sectional slices and the printer deposits layers of material, typically plastic or metal, one atop the other in the shape of each 2D slice. The layers are fused, and the fabricated object is treated and hardened.

Because 3D printers don’t need to carve material from preexisting blocks (as in sculpture), the process allows for elaborate and visually stunning shapes to be created in a matter of hours with no manual labor. The size of these shapes is only limited by the size of the printer making them—heck, combine a big enough one with a space probe and you’re halfway to Von Neumann technology.

All that is well and good, but as Thingiverse recently discovered, any technology that allows users to digitize and replicate objects is bound to have some IP implications. And it’s precisely because of its potential as a game changer that 3D printing presents challenging legal questions best addressed before the technology becomes ubiquitous.

Gutenberg didn’t have to worry much about intellectual property laws, but he had to compete with an array of other legal and societal challenges to his invention. Eventually copyright, a novel concept in the 16th century, emerged as a means to regulate Gutenberg’s disruptive technology. 3D printing is especially intriguing from a legal perspective because, like the printing press, it has broad implications for the existing legal regime (including all three areas of IP - patent, copyright, and trademark), but it also presents issues that may warrant broad changes to existing law—or require new laws entirely.

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Publisher and/or Author and/or Managing Editor:__Andres Agostini ─ @Futuretronium at Twitter! Futuretronium Book at