Digital Piracy in the Third Dimension
Despite the plethora of advantages afforded by the rapid evolution of digital technology, intellectual property owners constantly find their rights infringed upon. This critical issue is front and center with the emergence of 3D Printers, devices that take digital files and “print” them into tangible objects. The methods and materials vary, but all 3-D printers essentially work by building up an object one tiny layer at a time. A printer can create objects as simple as a ball or as complex and intricate as a grandfather clock.
This technology has existed in some capacity for quite awhile, but recently has become more refined and affordable, moving consumption from the industrial sector into the private sector. The Swedish digital piracy service The Pirate Bay (TPB) speculates that in the near future consumers will download physical designs the way they can download books, movies and music.
TPB has recently begun offering downloads that can be printed in 3D, including designs for cowboy hats and model cars. However, the service has much loftier goals: it altruistically claims that a 3D printing feature will end worldwide child labor and feed the hungry. While TPB is focused on the future, copyright and patent holders are not so optimistic about the present.
Suppose an individual designs an object and is granted a patent for it. The patent provides the holder with a competitive advantage for a given period of time. However, digital technology allows the object’s design to be freely shared and 3D printing enables anyone with a printer to physically reproduce the object. “It will be easier for imitators as well as innovators to get goodsto market fast. Competitive advantages may thus be shorter-lived than ever before.”
The primary debate between consumers and designers over 3D printing is not a new one—artists and content creators want to get paid for their work, but content consumers don’t want to pay if they don’t have to. The recording industry has encountered a similar issue in regard to music piracy for the past seventeen years. However, 3D files pose a more complicated question: are these files and designs protectable at all?
Slate.com’s Michael Weinberg doesn’t think they are, at least not practically so. Weinberg argues that IP law cannot protect many of the things that are printed on 3D printers because they are useful objects. He includes designs with expired patents, soon to be expired patents, or designs never patented in the first place as those most likely to be shared and exploited.
What Weinberg doesn’t consider is the affect 3D printing will have on objects that have yet to be released. Big Think’s Dominic Basulto offers the example of Nike—imagine the design of Nike’s latest and greatest sneaker is leaked on the Internet before the shoe is released. It is highly unlikely that Nike will acquiesce and allow digital pirates and consumers to freely download and print the shoe under such circumstances.
The current law on the matter is unsettled—however the technology is here to stay. The digital world is about to become physical.