Image via Wikimedia
The age of anyone being able to print basically anything is nearly here, and it promises to revolutionize the world, or at least the manufacturing industry. Why run to the store for expensive toys or tools when you can print them on the cheap at home with some plastic and a design template?
As a niche hobby space, the 3D-printing world maintained an open-source ethos, but as the technology penetrates the mainstream market, design templates will hold a lot of value. Eventually, we'll be talking about 3D files for guns, cars, rocket engines, whatever—which, just like albums in the 90s, are ripe for downloading and copying.
A startup called Authentise wants to skip the file-sharing Napster era and go straight to the legal, commercial streaming services. It developed a technology that works like a Spotify for "physibles"—a newly coined term for 3D-printed objects, MIT's Technology Review reported.
The process is similar to how digital streaming for music or TV works—you go to the website, choose the object you want to print, and the company sends it directly to your 3D printer. The key is, it's a one-time shot. You can't download the design file—you never even see it, because that would leave the door open to unauthorized copying.
The game Authentise is really in is intellectual property protection. (The tagline is “Let them 3D print it. Once.”) The technology they've developed, called ShapeSend, is essentially a DRM scheme for physical things. It's set to launch next month.
At this point, it's a solution to a problem that doesn't even exist, but that people are certain will exist in the near future, in a big way. For years there's been talk of 3D printing as the next piracy Mecca. Rights holders are already going after 3D-printing services for infringement, and those companies are lawyering up.
If you ask me, the foresight is refreshing. All the manufacturing industry has to do is look over its shoulder to see the embattled record labels and publishing companies struggling to survive. A subscription service for 3D templates could even open up a new way for makers to earn money for their designs.
That said, the startup's biggest customers probably won't be independent artists and craftspeople, but manufacturing heavyweights and other corporate rights holders. What happens when GE starts 3D-printing airplane engines? Or parents start churning out Disney figurines?
We saw a taste of the latter recently when HBO cracked down on a 3D-printing service for selling an iPhone dock template inspired by a Game of Thrones design. And as far as the big manufacturing companies are concerned, they may not like the idea of any company that helps commercialize a technology set to disrupt their industry, but the alternative—unchecked, rampant piracy—is worse.
Already The Pirate Bay has a section for physibles and is bracing for the 3D-printing revolution. But the Pirate Bay founder, Tobias Andersson, told TorrentFreak he's nervous about what that era will bring about:
The coming copy fights will be on a totally other level. I’m talking about the 3D printing revolution. In a few years, millions of blueprints of tools, car parts, clothing and weapons will be up for download. If there is a safe platform.
The Pirate Bay in its current form can withstand the pressure from quite harmless industries like the movie and music industries. But when car, oil, and weapons industries and all the countries that depend on them start to feel threatened, we can’t depend on a few people to sacrifice themselves.
Even if the stakes are higher, some 3D pirates are bound to the illegal file-sharing route, while other consumers opt to pay a fee for access to the files, with DRM restrictions on their use. Meanwhile, hackers will be able to crack the DRM—a vulnerability Authentise CEO Andre Wegner anticipates, he told the Technology Review. It's also bound to open up a conversation—and has already started to— about what objects are protected or patented, that gets to the heart of what copyright even means in the 21st century.
It looks like history is set to repeat itself all over again.