14 November 2010

Cloud Manufacturing and IP Law

The cool thing about innovation, as I've discussed before, is that it can only ever increase the number of options available to us. The invention of the nuclear ICBM didn't render knives obsolete.

"The enemy cannot press a button, if you disable his hand."

However, there is an exception to that rule, at least in practice. There was one innovation in human history that made it possible to limit our options...that innovation was lawyers.

Sexy, sexy lawyers.

The emerging accessibility of 3D printing is eventually going to get a lot of attention in the courts. Things like patent, copyright, and trademark law have always been crafted under the assumption that it's really difficult to make physical objects. For example, consider a pen (any kind of pen, really). If you had to make a pen yourself you'd probably end up using a feather, because the machinery necessary to make something like a ball-point pen is impossible for anyone to afford unless they're in the business of making ball-point pens. Thus, ball-point pen manufacturers are really only worried about other ball-point pen manufacturers.

Also, this thing.

That is going to change. Not over night, but in the next decade it will become possible for an average, middle-class person to print a ball-point pen for nothing more than the cost of raw materials, and in less time than it takes to make popcorn.

All sorts of industries are going to feel threatened by 3D printing technology. Picture the recording industry back when things like VCRs and MP3s were introduced to the market. Or take a look at the journalism industry. Sure, there will always be demand for professional journalists, but it turns out people are remarkably in favor of the idea of making their own journalism (blogs), even if it is of questionable quality, because it's custom and it's instant. The same thing applies to movies, music, books, comics, videos, etc.

You can pick any two.

The ability to make something exactly the way you want, exactly when and where you want it, will be a huge leap forward in technology. As technological progress marches forward "cloud" manufacturing is going to emerge from the simple fact that the tools for making things will be cheap and abundant, rather than expensive and limited like they are now. How rocky the transition becomes will depend on which side mobilizes first.

Michael Weinberg wrote a paper that's posted over at Public Knowledge titled, "It Will Be Awesome If They Don't Screw It Up." It is basically the American counterpart to Dr. Bowyer's (and friends) paper titled, "The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-cost 3D Printing." The legal situation in Europe is slightly different from America in that indivduals can copy patents for their own personal use, whereas in America any copying of a patent is infringment.

Differences aside, both American and UK law says it's illegal to provide people with the means for violating intellectual property rights. This will most likely be the weapon used in court to challenge the freedom of 3D printing. It's difficult to track down thousands of individuals, prove in court that they each individually violated your IP rights, and successfully sue them for whatever piddling amount of money they have. A much more attractive approach is to identify the few businesses involved in the technology, like a company that runs a website devoted to sharing digital designs, and sue their pants of. The pants of established companies are easier to locate and have more cash.

The reason this approach will probably work is that established industries will have an easier time demonstrating to lawmakers that 3D printers are costing America precious jobs than 3D printing advocates will have demonstrating that 3D printers will be far more helpful than hurtful. Unless, of course, 3D printing advocates can manage to band together and present their case in a coherent, preemptive manner.

For example, 3D printing could very well be a sort of "silver bullet" that allows us to significantly reduce per capita energy useage. It's simply more efficient to manufacture exactly what you need out of commodity raw materials than to ship finished products all over the place.

I even have a graph.

It will take a while for 3D printing to begin to seriously challenge established industries. Hopefully, the process will be slow enough for those industries to adapt, rather than object. But if not, it will be important to track the evolution of IP law to ensure it doesn't skew in favor of corporations.

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