3D Printing & Imaging
Intellectual Property and the Future of @Home Manufacturing

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The clash between intellectual property and cheap, distributed, additive manufacturing is both inevitable and predictable. It’s one of those deciding battles where for better or worse, the world is different afterwards.

The conflict is obvious – patents and copyright are about protecting and monopolizing ideas, while the line of development that manufacturing is following demands these ideas be created, shared, and improved upon ad infinitum. Trademarks are about brand control, identity really. That system is not included in this analysis.MAKEZINE_3DThurs

Within the next few years this issue will come to the forefront, with conventional design and manufacturing firms screaming about falling sales, all due to rampant production of unlicensed or open sourced (reverse-engineered) “stuff.” Imagine something comparable to “pirated” iPhone 5s being for sale at your local flea market (and online equivalents) for one-quarter the price Apple charges for it, and you watch them print it (electronics, antennae, screen and all) while you wait.

Image Credit: webuyics.com

Imagine the panic of investment banks, multinational corporations and governments around the world. The old system isn’t protecting our property! All because of this rapid prototyping technology some hobbyists made cheap and pervasive – now anybody can make whatever they want, or more importantly, steal something we paid or worked to develop without giving us a dime for our trouble.

We’ll be ruined. Something must be done.

You might think this is science fiction, but just three months ago Nokia released the specs to 3D print the shell of the new Nokia Lumia,
with the following blog post (excerpted)

“But in addition to that, we are going to release 3D templates, case specs, recommended materials and best practices—everything someone versed in 3D printing needs to print their own custom Lumia 820 case. We refer to these files and documents collectively as a 3D-printing Development Kit, or 3DK for short.

…..”In the future, I envision wildly more modular and customizable phones. Perhaps in addition to our own beautifully-designed phones, we could sell some kind of phone template, and entrepreneurs the world over could build a local business on building phones precisely tailored to the needs of his or her local community. You want a waterproof, glow-in-the-dark phone with a bottle-opener and a solar charger? Someone can build it for you—or you can print it yourself!”

First off, big kudos to Nokia for being so forward thinking. They see that by opening their platform, they increase the number of people who will love their product. By letting entrepreneurs build a business on top of their platform, they’ll find their products in more hands.

Image Credit: BoardForge.com

Meanwhile, at the recent SXSW CREATE stage, a fledgling open source hardware project called BoardForge made its debut. The dream behind the team at BoardForge is to eliminate the necessity of ordering large quantities to produce high quality custom electronic parts, notably circuit boards. From their website:

  “We aim to fix this with an easy to use, affordable benchtop robot. Think MakerBot for electronics. Ultimately, the machine will etch traces, apply solder paste, place components, cook, and test. Version 1.0 places components.”

Like it or not, the capability to “pirate” nearly any consumer electronic device will be upon us sooner than anyone can imagine, and there are many industries that will fight tooth and nail to protect their existing business model.

I can hear some of you saying “just because the capabilities to pirate devices may exist doesn’t mean people will use them”, and that’s true, but it’s not really relevant to the conversation. The creation and enforcement of rules for new technology are always to control “the worst offenders.”

This not only doesn’t work to control the problem (as demonstrated daily by pervasive, ineffective DRM on all forms of media), it often catches the innocent or well-intentioned in its crosshairs and, desperate for victory, goes for the easy kill.

Modern “hacking” comes in two flavors, “white hat” and “black hat,” good vs. evil. Seems pretty simple who the legal system should devote resources to chasing… Right?

Award winning security researcher Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, also known as “the AT&T Hacker” was sentenced last week to 41 months in prison, three years of probation and ordered to pay restitution of $73,000 USD to AT&T.

andrwe.jpg-w=300 Image Credit: techcrunch.com

His crime? In his own words (excerpted) after being found guilty in January:

“In June of 2010 there was an AT&T webserver on the open Internet. There was an API on this server, a URL with a number at the end. If you incremented this number, you saw the next iPad 3G user email address. I thought it was egregiously negligent for AT&T to be publishing a complete target list of iPad 3G owners, and I took a sample of the API output to a journalist at Gawker.

One of my prosecutors, Michael Martinez, claimed that our querying a public webserver was criminal because ‘it isn’t like going to ESPN and checking your sports team’s scores.’

The facts: AT&T admitted, at trial, that they ‘published’ this data. Their words. Public-facing, programmatic accesses of APIs happen upwards of a trillion times per day. Twitter broke 13 billion on their API ages ago. This is something that happens more than the entire population of Earth, daily. The government has no problem with this up until you transform the output into something offensive to important people. People with “disruptive” startups, this is your fair warning: They are coming for you next.”

The very serious individuals who prosecute those violating the federal laws of our country are lawyers. They mostly don’t understand new technologies, they’re not really interested in inside jokes or details, and asking them to differentiate between good and bad seems a stretch.

Why would the unauthorized creation of objects that look similar or identical to existing, protected objects be treated any different?

The question is, do we wait for a “Something Must Be Done” crisis to force the issue or have the conversation like rational adults, letting fact and reality guide our hand?

We’ve Been Down This Road Before

Image Credit: mbwda.com

If we wait, the knee-jerk reaction will be Prohibition.

IP laws will pretty much stay the same, while a new government agency or two will be introduced to regulate “@home manufacturing businesses.”

This will probably take the form of a licensing scheme, where in order to own and operate an “@home manufacturing unit” you will need to take a class on intellectual property, pay fees for a license from the government, and put your identification number on every item that comes out, making your machine, and you, responsible for it.

The Good News:  A class associated with the licensing requirement will probably guarantee some minimum level of proficiency in operating the machinery. If a product is pirated, defective or fraudulent it’s easy to find out whom to punish.

The Bad News: By requiring a license, hobbyists and tinkerers may turn into outlaws and black-market participants by default. Those who do participate in the licensing scheme will have the advantage of fewer competitors, but since every product can always be tied back to their machine it introduces a whole slew of liability issues that haven’t even been considered yet.

When it comes to piracy, the assumption is every act is intentional, but how many ideas are there? How many designs?  Additive Manufacturing makes the entire design process “Think it up, design or scan it, create it on-site.” So where does the “research to make sure you’re not conflicting with anyone elses existing intellectual property” step come into play? Before or after you hit the print button?

Additive manufacturing is so important because it shrinks the minimum viable market size to one consumer. Is it the @home manufacturer’s responsibility to research every single design they are asked to print? Probably.

In this scenario, intellectual property liability insurance will become mandatory, inadvertent violations frequent and payouts punitive in the stated hopes of discouraging similar behavior.

But you can’t discourage creation once the potential of the tools are realized. It will be easy to get one of these machines, but expensive to get a license. So the blackmarket will flourish with the inevitable criminality that accompanies. The costs of prohibition are already stacking up, and we won’t even address enforcement here. But it doesn’t have to be this way…

A Collaborative Renaissance

Patents exist for a reason; innovation is not free or even cheap. But who says the way we’re doing it now works very well at all? Large producing firms defensively acquire patents as leverage in the event they are sued by a competitor. So-called “patent trolls” buy patents like lottery tickets while wielding the letter of the law as a thief would a gun; extorting value they did not earn while leaving their victims shaken and thankful more was not taken from them.

The individual inventor is in there somewhere, but with the process to patent a single idea requiring multiple years and thousands of dollars (not including legal costs), what average individual has the time to create ideas and protect them all using only his own resources? Not many.
Image Credit: poetryfoundation.com

Lincoln said “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius,” and it did. But over the intervening decades the creosote of bureaucracy and abuse have slowly choked what was once a vital part of American free market innovation.

Nothing is truly one-size-fits-all, and while mass manufacturing has driven commerce since the industrial revolution, it has come at a cost. Centralized manufacturing has major expenses associated in the creation of even trivial objects; the mantra that “we’ll make it up in volume” leads to a zero sum way of thinking where your costs are fixed at a high minimum floor, but you have to compete with all other manufacturers in your space for the profit that remains. This is the nature of mass manufacturing everything; the culture it cultivates is one of technological stagnation and secrecy.

On the complete other end of the spectrum you’ve got a place like Thingiverse, where nearly every design is available for free and is open source. You can take anything that anybody else has made, change it a little bit, improve it, make it easier to assemble, mash it up with something you or someone else created, and then put it back out there for others to become inspired by your work and do the same. Each Thing has a page, and each page proudly displays the lineage of past Things it was derived from or based off of. The only thing missing here is the value proposition – some people use it to promote their other proprietary works for sale elsewhere, but mostly it is people collaborating to advance what is possible with the new manufacturing and design reality.
Image Credit: instructables.com

The coming challenge is to take this virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle of innovation leading to more innovation, and transpose it onto for-profit IP.

A Thousand Bites at the Apple

If you have a new, profitable idea and you patent it under the current system, that’s great! But how do you make money with it? You could sell it (if someone wants to buy it, ideas are cheap). If you want to bring it to market yourself, you’ll have to find a manufacturer, financing, packaging, marketing, distribution, and on and on. Most patents are improvements to existing products, so what happens if someone improves your patented idea and patents it themselves? Not only is your old system obsolete, but if you want to upgrade to the newly developed “state of the art” there are very expensive licensing fees or redundant development costs while you re-invent their re-invention of your technology. Talk about wasting time and effort.

Instead, we should take advantage of our digital world – combine the concept of the Creative Commons’ Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 licensing scheme mixed with an open value transfer services like Bitcoin, while using Ricardian contracts to automate the whole thing.

The trick would be to design the system in such a way so you can have a single object purchased provide value to everyone along the path of its creation. Initially these relationships will be simple, but as the virtuous cycle kicks in things get complicated.

There would be a small submission fee to make sure people bring in designs that are at least a little thought through, say $10. If someone wants to examine your design in detail, it might cost $.50, if they want to print, modify, or use it: $1. Prices need to be low to encourage experimentation and use of existing designs.

The concept at its core becomes the worlds biggest modular “Lego” kit, where any piece of every design can be registered, tagged, and stored by its creator to be used by creators who follow. The fee isn’t a license for use, so much as it is a compensation for the time the new creator now does not have to spend designing the already-existing component, whether for use in a new creation, to produce commercially or just to print once for personal use.

In that $1 for a use fee, at least 50percent should always go to the current creator with payments scaling down to earlier creators, but never ceasing to exist entirely.

With Bitcoin and a project called OpenTransactions, you can transfer values as low as .00000001 bitcoin quickly to anyone else with virtually no transaction fees, automatically, with execution based on the fulfilment of pre-determined conditions.
Put simply, if I invent a innovative new doorstopper and upload it to this service, and then you came along and wanted to print it, you would take the other side of that contract, and in exchange for $1, have it sent to an automatically-generated bitcoin address. You would be sent the file and granted a license to print or modify under the condition that you make any improvements available under the same type of licensing conditions.

As the content creator, I only make and sign this contract once and then just put it out there for as many people to take me up on it as like my product. This remains just as true if my doorstopper is the 5th generation of novel improvement on that doorstopper, except there the $1 sent to the generated bitcoin address would be split up and distributed to all the contributors, based on a diminishing returns algorithm. The more time that passes and the more ubiquitous your innovation becomes, the less you naturally earn per use.

Compensated Open Source Innovation for All

Instead of focusing your time and energy on protecting your ideas and technology, it is suddenly in your best interest to make sure as many people see your innovation as possible, and if someone wants to improve it, that’s great! Not only do you have a monetary interest, but you can cheaply use their improved version and then build your own improvements on top.

For manufacturing, this means instead of having a contract with a content owner to create 100,000 of their product every six months, they could become “local manufacturing centers” that can make anything with designs acquirable through this system, paying $1 for each time they print a design and charging the customer the difference between the licensing and material costs, based on the prevailing market rate. For an additional premium, customers could work with a designer to customize the product to their tastes.
Image Credit: adafruit.com

For the creator, everything you build goes into the library, and if you tag your part correctly it will come up over and over as future innovators look for components to derive from, or consumers decide that they want your product created at a hub. This gives you control over what requires your time – your designs all have long tails, so you can stay focused on improving new ideas rather than protecting the ones you’ve already created.

This is a big problem; please tell me where I’m wrong and explain to me the things I just don’t understand. Until then, I think this could be a better way for a more productive and open future. It could quickly create a library of quality, constantly-improving designs that could be cheaply licensed and thus competitively manufactured in all localities while still providing value to the minds behind the design.

People want to create, and do it despite the hostile and confusing IP environment we find ourselves in. We might have continued along without having this conversation if it weren’t for all those hobbyists trying to make their dreams real, but that just isn’t the way things are headed.

I look forward to continuing the discussion with you in the comments.

Adam B. Levine writes about new technology & world events at MindToMatter.org. He also curates The Daily MinufacturistThe Daily Bitcoin, and The Daily Exposure.