I put things here so they are on the internet


I put things here so they are on the internet

Recently, Antonio Regalado at Technology Review identified a patent on Digital Rights Management (DRM) for 3D printing.  The patent, granted to Nathan Myhrvold’s companyIntellectual Ventures (IV), initiated a wave of discussion about DRM and 3D printing.  While this is a discussion that is worth having, the existence of the patent it not particularly relevant to it.

DRM is a generic term for a suite of technologies that, in theory, allow people to control how others use digital information.  DRM is usually applied to things protected by copyright (like movies on DVD) in the hopes of preventing unauthorized copying.

DRM is problematic for many reasons, but two are particularly relevant to this discussion.  First, almost by definition, DRM cripples the functionality of devices or programs, making themdefective by design.  As applied to 3D printing, DRM could transform a general purpose tool capable of making anything into a specialized tool that can only be used to create a handful of pre-approved items.  Such a transition at this point could cripple the growth of consumer 3D printing.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, DRM does not work.  The highest profile uses of DRM have been attempts to restrict unauthorized copying of works like music and movies (while the music industry has largely moved away from DRM, the movie industry clings firmly to it).  Despite being protected by increasingly sophisticated types of DRM, unauthorized copies of just about any movie released on DVD or Blu-Ray can easily be found online.  Since only one person needs to be smart enough to crack a given DRM in order for everyone to be able to circumvent it, DRM inevitably fails.

Unfortunately, that does not mean that DRM does not have an impact.  Although DRM does not prevent bad actors from making unauthorized copies of works, it does prevent good actors who wish to comply with the rules from making legitimate uses of them.  In this way, DRM imposes costs on consumers without granting any legitimate benefit to rightsholders.

Enter IV’s patent.  The patent appears to be quite broad, and to cover many of the ways that DRM might be implemented on 3D printers.  Does it change anything?

Probably not.  When confronted with a digital disruptive technology, many people reflexively turn to DRM in an attempt to control the disruption.  IV’s patent is not the first time someone has thought about this, and it will not be the last.

Also, the patent does not appear to represent an actual functioning DRM mechanism.  This probably should not come as a surprise.  Intellectual Ventures is widely known as a “non-practicing entity” by some and as a patent troll by others.  Their general strategy is to stake out an area and charge people to license their patents, not to actually develop technology to implement.

Furthermore, and this is important, having a patent does not allow you to force people to use the technology that you have patented.  Since the patent does not represent a way to implement 3D printed DRM, its existence does not really move 3D printing closer to a DRM world.

Finally, in some ways this patent could actually slow the adoption of DRM in the 3D printing community.  Assuming the broad patent survived a challenge in court (a big if), most people dreaming of imposing DRM on 3D printing would be forced to pay Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures a licensing fee.  That increases the rightholder cost of using DRM, which is a good thing.

The emergence of this patent has helped raise awareness of the possibility of using DRM in connection with 3D printing.  However, that awareness raising may ultimately prove to be its most relevant impact on 3D printing’s development.

Having made it into the New York Times, it looks like it is time to talk about 3D printing and firearms.  The tl;dr version of this post is: this is an interesting development that is not really new but does provide a useful framework to start thinking about the larger policy issues around 3D printers.

Some Background

Over a year ago…

3D printers are machines that can turn digital objects into physical things.  They are general purpose manufacturing machines and, as such, the scope of “things” that they can produce is broad.  Like all general-purpose machines, they can be used to create things that one might consider beneficial to society as well as things that one might consider detrimental to society.  Without taking a position on which category firearms fit into, it probably should not have come as a surprise when, last year, parts for firearms started showing up on Thingiverse, a website devoted to sharing 3D printing files.

The initial reaction to this within the 3D printing community was decidedly mixed. There werediscussions about free speech, the responsibility of sharing files like this, and even if it was possible to make a firearm with existing consumer grade 3D printers.  Ultimately the thingiverse team decided not to take down firearms.

During the initial controversy, the source of the 3D printing designs went largely unnoticed.  This is unfortunate, because the origins of the designs will be very helpful in thinking through the policy implications of 3D printed weapons.  It turns out that HaveBlue, the thingiverse user who originally posted the part, obtained his original file from a website called CNCGuns.com.  CNCGuns is a site that is designed “to show gun enthusiasts the different types of firearms that can be manufactured using CNC (Computer Numerical Control) equipment.”  CNC equipment is the type of equipment that you might find in a standard machine shop.  

This indicates that there is a community of people who are already trading files and manufacturing firearms at home that predate consumer access to 3D printing.  In fact, they are using technology that is (currently) far more widespread and better at making firearms than 3D printers.  On its face this is neither a good nor bad thing.  However, it does suggest that we already have a way to think about what it means when people can create firearms at home.  After all, they have been doing so for some time.

This July

The conversation evolved a bit this summer when HaveBlue announced that he had successfully fired the 3D printed gun.  While only part of the gun was actually 3D printed (the “lower”) this was still big news.  As far as anyone can tell, this was the first example of someone 3D printing and firing a firearm.  Although HaveBlue was not using a consumer-grade 3D printer, because of the age of the machine that he did use and the pace of innovation in the consumer area it largely put to rest questions about whether or not it would be possible to use consumer-grade 3D printers to build working firearms.

This August

Hot on the heels of HaveBlue’s successful firing, a group called the Defense Distributed launchedthe Wiki Weapon Project.  In a video on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, the group’s members requested $20,000 to develop and freely release files that would allow someone to print a firearm on a consumer-grade 3D printer.

This September

Although Indiegogo pulled the project from its site, the Wiki Weapon Project announced that it has succeeded in meeting its $20,000 fundraising goal.  The bulk of this money was earmarked to lease a commercial-grade 3D printer from the company Stratasys.

This October

Upon learning about the Wiki Weapon Project, Stratasys cancelled the Wiki Weapon Project’s lease and reclaimed the printer.  At this point, the Wiki Weapon Project is presumed to be looking for a new printer.

What does this mean?

While this is undoubtedly a high profile incident, it is not likely to be the last story where people raise concerns about something being produced by 3D printers.  In light of that, it is probably useful to have a general framework to use to analyze these controversies.

The first question that we should ask is “is this actually new?”  In other words, is 3D printing allowing people to do something that they were unable to do before, or is this simply getting attention because someone got around to doing it with a 3D printer?

In this case, the answer appears to be “no.”  Remember, the source of these files is an existing community of people who use machining tools to create firearms.  These machines are computer operated and can make objects out of metal.  While attaching “3D printing” to the activity might raise its profile, presumably our national firearms policy already recognizes that people can make weapons at home and has structured rules accordingly.

The second question is “even if it is not new, does it fundamentally change the existing activity?”  Again, in this case the answer seems to be “no.”  People were downloading files used to make firearms on automated (or semi-automated) machines before they had access to 3D printers and, at this stage, it is hard to see how this changes that activity.  I suspect that there are still many more CNC milling machines in this country than 3D printers.  

The third question is “is it possible to fundamentally change the existing activity in the future?”  The answer to this question, as it will often be, is “maybe.”  Today more people have access to CNC milling machines and machining shops than 3D printers, but you could certainly imagine a future where that was not the case. A world where it is easy to download firearms files and most people have access to 3D printers (still an if) might change the existing dynamic enough to justify developing new policies.

But that is the real challenge with all policy connected to 3D printing (and to emerging technologies more generally): being able to imagine a way where a technology could be misused in the future is not a sound basis for policy, and certainly not a sound basis to limit its growth.  

Imagining a futuristic 3D printing dystopia and then trying to create policies to stop it will inevitably be a counterproductive exercise for at least two reasons.  First, the imagined dystopic future will never actually happen.  If we were good at predicting how new technologies would impact society we would all be rich.  That makes new legislation designed to prevent the bad future a waste of time at best.

Second, and more problematic, is that any legislation aimed at preventing an imagined future is much more likely to block unexpected positive developments.  We do not know how 3D printing will actually impact society, but we can be fairly sure that today’s projections will seem laughable 10 or 20 years from now.  Laws enacted during a time of 3D printing anxiety are much more likely to prevent good things than block bad things.

Looking forward

This does not mean that we need to wait until people are doing troubling things with 3D printers before doing anything about it.  However, we should at least understand how those troubling things will actually play out before we take steps to limit what people can do with the technology.

It is tempting to assume that every question raised in the context of 3D printing is somehow a question of first impression that has not been considered before.  However, in reality that will rarely be the case.  Most of the questions that are raised in the context of 3D printing have been raised before and they have reasonable solutions.  One of the greatest challenges presented by the growth of 3D printing will be to recognize when a question is truly new, and when it is just a complicated problem that has been around for years.


image: Thingiverse user HaveBlue.

Last month I attended the third Open Hardware Summit in New York City.  With the growth of the community and the emergence of products that target people beyond core open source hardware enthusiasts, there was a great deal of discussion about what it really means to be open source hardware and also how to be both open source and competitive in the hardware world.  This post expands upon something that I only had time to briefly touch upon during my presentation.

At the end of my talk at last month’s Open Hardware Summit, I urged the community to consider that open source hardware may be more of a political and cultural movement than a legal movement.  This was an admittedly fleeting reference to a discussion that will necessarily be a large one, so I want to use this blog post to begin to expand upon what I meant.  The goal of this explanation is not to provide answers – largely because the answers are not mine to provide, and even if they were I do not have them – but rather to attempt to bring a useful framework to the discussion.

Legal Underpinnings of Open Source Software

Let me first lay out some of the critical elements of the open source software (OSS) movement, which is often pointed to as a model for the open source hardware (OSHW) movement.  While OSS is undeniably a cultural and political movement, it is also a movement firmly grounded in the law.  Specifically, OSS takes a legal regime that can restrict sharing (copyright) and use it to promote sharing.  It accomplishes this through a legally binding license on the code.

Critically, this slight of hand works because code is protected by copyright.  More importantly, code is automatically protected by copyright.  The coder does not need to apply or register in order to obtain copyright protection on the code (although there are good reasons to register a copyright) – the mere act of writing the code means that it is protected by copyright. That copyright gives people something to license and a legal way to enforce that license.

As one of last month’s speakers (I believe Andrew Katz, but if someone remembers differently I’ll update this) helpfully explained, a license allows you do to something that you could not do anyway.  Code is protected by copyright.  Absent anything else, copying that code is a violation of copyright.  A license gives you permission, subject to certain conditions, to make a copy of that code.  Because the code is protected by copyright and licensed under conditions, copying the code in a way that violates those conditions is copyright infringement.  If someone infringes on your copyright, you can take them to court. 

This legal enforceability allows the OSS community to impose its own internal rules on people outside of the community.  Social shaming and recognition of achievement is probably enough to make sure everyone in the OSS community plays by the rules, but they are less effective for people who want to use the code but do not care about the community’s opinion.  Since OSS is useful and usable for people outside of the OSS community, this legal enforceability is critical to protecting the ethos of OSS as it comes into contact with the wider world.  

(Of course, it is possible to engage in profitable, creative industries without this sort of legal protection.  The fashion industry is a great example.  For an exploration of these industries check out Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman’s new book The Knockoff Economy.)

Legal Underpinnings of Open Source Hardware

Hardware is different from software in many ways, but one of those ways is how it is, and isn’t, protected by intellectual property.  As a general matter, copyright does not protect functional objects – objects that do things.  Copyright may protect decorative elements, or specific patterns on a circuit board, but by and large most OSHW projects and products (especially as you move away from embedded electronics) are things that do something, and thus not eligible for copyright protection.  As a result, it is all but inevitable that critical elements of an OSHW product are not protected by copyright.

That does not mean that there is no protection for OSHW.  Trademarks can be protected.  However, trademarks cannot protect the functional elements of the product either.

This leaves patents.  For the purposes of this discussion, patents differ from copyright in a few critical ways.  First, you must affirmatively apply for a patent – they do not exist simply by creating an object.  Second, there is a burden to show utility, novelty, and nonobviousness.  Third, and this may be the most important, actually getting a patent is an expensive and time-intensive process.

This combination – copyright that does not protect function, trademark that needs to be applied for and does not protect function, and patents that need to be applied for and can protect functions – means that most hardware projects are “open” by default because their core functionality is not protected by any sort of intellectual property right.  Of course, in this case “open” means that their key functionality can be copied without legal repercussion, not that the schematics have been posted online or that it is easy to discover how they work (critical elements of open source hardware).

Licensing Open Source Hardware

This difference has a critical impact on licensing open source hardware.  There is nothing preventing an inventor from applying an open source hardware license to her creation.  However, for that license to be legally meaningful, she must have a right that she is actually licensing to users.  In the absence of a patent on the project, it is unlikely that she will actually be licensing anything critical to someone who wants to reproduce or build upon the creation.

This only matters if someone violates the license.  As described above, if someone copies OSS and refuses to comply with the terms of the license, that person is a copyright infringer and can expect to be brought to court.  In contrast, if someone copies OSHW and refuses to comply with the terms of the license, that person will probably be in the clear.  Since (again, in most cases) there was no intellectual property protecting the functionality of the product, there is no intellectual property right being infringed in the violation of the license.

One response to this – to try to patent every OSHW project – is simply impractical.  Even if we assume, simply for the sake of argument, that every OSHW project could meet the utility, novelty, and nonobviousness requirements of patent (something that is highly unlikely), it is unreasonable to expect every OSHW project to pay the thousands of dollars it costs to shepherd an application through the process simply to be able to turn it over to the community.

Another – to make it easier to patent OSHW projects – strikes me as ill conceived.  No matter how good the intentions, creating additional intellectual property rights or making it easier to obtain intellectual property protections rarely advance to cause of openness.  It is almost inevitable that any such process would quickly be used and abused by people outside of the OSHW community in ways that the OSHW community would live to regret.  

Where does this leave us?

First, to be clear, none of this means that OSHW is doomed or a worthless endeavor or unable to scale.  It simply means that its expansion will require critical, creative thinking.  Moreover, open source hardware is more than a license.  It is a commitment to building products that people can access, repair, and improve, and to building documentation that facilitates these goals.  Nothing about the legal status of an open source hardware license changes that.  Additionally, nothing about the legal status of an open source hardware license prevents an organization (say, theOpen Source Hardware Association) from creating a certification logo, protected by trademark, that companies that comply with open source hardware principles can affix to their products.

I believe that companies coming out of the OSHW community truly do have a desire to be open.  I also believe that they are honestly trying to find ways to compete in a broad marketplace made up of people who do not care about openness and competitors uninterested in playing by “the rules.”

The result is that they are trying to thread the needle, maintaining as much openness as possible while not making it easy for competitors to simply clone them.  Right now that path is far from clear.  Inevitably, there will be missteps along the way.  It is also possible that some “open” companies abandon their commitment and simply betray the community.

The challenge is to learn to distinguish a misstep from a betrayal while recognizing that most choices do not have straightforward right or wrong answers.  OSHW is not OSS.  The “right” license can have tremendous value as a signaling device, as a public commitment, and as a way to raise the profile of openness.  However, in many cases, the “right” license will be meaningless from a legal standpoint.  To me, the challenge of the next year of OSHW is to find a way to scale beyond the core OSHW community, maintain a meaningful commitment to openness (whatever that ultimately means), while all the while recognizing that the license itself is largely symbolic.

I am not going to pretend that is easy, or that I even have an idea of how to accomplish it.  At this point, all I really hope is that everyone is coming to this discussion with a realistic understanding of its terms.

Want to learn more about open source hardware?  In addition to the Open Source Hardware Association and the Open Hardware Summit, earlier this year Public Knowledge held OH/DC: Open Source Hardware Comes to DC - check out audio and video here.

Image: Catarina Mota.

Most people who know of Makerbot know them as a one of the leaders in the home 3D printingmarket.  Fewer people realize that they are also one of the highest profile examples of another movement: open source hardware.  Like open source software, the open source hardware community makes its plans freely available – and usable – to the general public.  This strategy was recently put to the test when another company tried to use Makerbot’s plans to make a Makerbot replica – and sell it for 2/3 of the price.

Open Source Hardware

Although the open source hardware community looks to open source software for guidance, there are obvious differences that arise when principles that were developed for virtual goods migrate to the physical world.  Unlike many open source software projects, open source hardware products are not given away for free.  If you want a Makerbot 3D printer from the Makerbot company, they will charge you for it.  However, you can download the plans and schematics for a Makerbot 3D printer and just build your own without having to give Makerbot a dime.

PK staff attorneys building a Makerbot

The one caveat is that Makerbot, and almost every other open source hardware project, retains control of their trademark.  That means that you can make your own Makerbot, but attaching the Makerbot logo to it would be trademark infringement.

This openness has lead to massive innovation.  The current Makerbot model – the Replicator – simply could not exist without the work done by a worldwide community of 3D printing enthusiasts working together to improve 3D printing.  In fact, without another open 3D printing project (the RepRap project), Makerbot probably would not exist at all.

While the open source hardware community has traditionally freely licensed its plans, a good deal of behavior was dictated by community norms, not licenses.  One of the most important norms was that simply “cloning” - that is, making an exact copy of someone else’s product and bringing it to market – wasn’t cool.  If you were going to copy someone else’s idea and bring it to market, you had an obligation, at a minimum, to improve it in some way.  Copying alone was frowned upon, but copying and improving was celebrated (for a larger examination of the unwritten rules of open source hardware, check out this post by Philip Torrone).

Enter TangiBot

Of course, community norms are not legally enforceable.  So it should have come as no surprise when an engineer named Matt Strong decided to set up a Kickstarter campaign to help market his own cloned Makerbot he called the TangiBot.  How would Makerbot and the open source hardware community react?

Makerbot mostly reacted by doing nothing.  In some ways, that is because there was not a lot they could do.  Strong was copying their technical designs, but that was his right.  The only difference, at least in theory, was that Strong was not calling his 3D printer a “Makerbot Replicator.”  He did make reference to Makerbot and the Replicator in his Kickstarter page, but it was mostly as a nominative use to explain the source of his design.  When Strong talked about the Makerbot Replicator, he was not suggesting that he was selling a Makerbot made Makerbot Replicator.  Instead, he was referring to the fact that he was copying a Makerbot Replicator.  Generally speaking, this is a permitted use of someone else’s trademark.  After all, there are not a lot of ways that Strong could have told people that he was copying a Makerbot Replicator without using the words “Makerbot Replicator.”  He also made it fairly clear that the 3D printer he was selling was not coming from Makerbot.

Did it Work?

So, was this the end for Makerbot?  It did not appear to be.  On Saturday, Strong’s Kickstarter campaign ended, falling about 90% short of his $500,000 goal.  And the reaction from the community was telling.  While at least one high profile community member criticized Strong’s use of the Makerbot name in the Kickstarter campaign (a criticism tied more to the frequency of use than the use in general), there were two other strong reactions.

The first was a “bad form” type of reaction.  Strong was seen by some (but certainly not all) as violating the spirit of open source hardware by simply cloning an existing product.  While some people joined the Kickstarter campaign just to comment against it, by and large both the open source hardware and 3D printing community expressed a reluctance to do business with someone who violated the community norms.  

This is an important reaction, but may not be enough to protect the open source hardware community as it grows.  While some people may know the complicated backstory of the relationship between Makerbot and TangiBot, many others will only see a 3D printer that is 33% cheaper than its (apparently identical) competitor.  As the world of open source hardware expands, this type of reputational check against cloning will likely become less effective. 

The second was a concern that Strong simply could not pull it off.  Makerbot’s popularity is not only tied to the specific design of the machines.  It also flows from a reputation for strong customer service and for well-built actual machines.  Put another way, Makerbot does not just design good machines, it ships good machines.

This highlights a critical difference between hardware and software.  Firefox is a great open source browser.  You can download it from Mozilla’s web site, or from any number of other sites.  To some degree, where you get Firefox from does not matter – every copy of Firefox is exactly the same program.

The same cannot be said for hardware.  Even if they are using the exact same designs, each physical item can be very different.  When people buy from Makerbot, they are buying a Makerbot designed and built product.  A 33% discount on a product that does not work may not be a deal.

What Now?

TangiBot failed to make its goal, but it is unlikely to be the last company that tries to market a clone of a Makerbot at a cheaper price (this happens all the time with another hugely successful open source hardware product, the Arduino).  Ultimately, there are at least two interesting lessons to be drawn from this episode.

The first is that the idea of open source hardware is not as fragile as it might appear.  Even though there are not legal barriers to cloning, there are cultural and economic reasons that make it hard.  Keep in mind that it took almost 8 months after the release of Makerbot’s Replicator for this question to even come up, and the cloner failed.  Hardware, as they say, is hard.  

The second, and this is discussed in the comments of an article on Hack a Day, is that consumers benefit from this type of competition.  Assuming he had the ability to follow through, Strong’s Kickstarter campaign suggests that it is possible to manufacture Makerbot Replicators for less than they are manufactured for today.  It is hard to say where those savings come from – it could be streamlining processes and better sourcing of materials, or it could be from shoddy materials and outsourcing production to less reliable facilities (for what it’s worth, Makerbots are built in Brooklyn while it appeared that TangiBots would be built in China).

As open source hardware grows in popularity, it is all but inevitable that we will see more incidents like this.  Since they raise a rich mix of legal, ethical, and normative questions, those incidents are worth paying attention to.  In a developing area like open source hardware, “right” answers are not always obvious.

In the meantime, here are a few more resources about this incident and open source hardware:

Joseph Flaherty wrote a fantastic article examining the moral questions surrounding Tangibot, with quotes from a number of experts, for Wired.com.

The TangiBot Kickstarter comment page became a center for debate, including some backers who backed simply to be able to participate in the comment thread.

All of this happened just in time for the third annual Open Hardware Summit, which will be held in New York City on September 27th.

This spring, Public Knowledge brought members of the open source hardware community to DC in order to begin to explain to policymakers what this whole open source hardware thing is about.  Audio and video from the event can be found here.

This whitepaper is a thorough analysis of role that data caps and usage based billing can play in internet access service.  It ends with a series of recommendations for regulators.

A PDF version of this paper can be found here.