A new wave of creators care about innovating. They care about building things. And they mostly see patents as getting in the way.

If you are a practicing patent attorney, it might be a good idea to call up that one copyright attorney you know and invite them out for some coffee.  Because it’s starting to look like patents are about to have a copyright-like moment where they get pulled from an esoteric corner of law and thrust into popular culture.

And this isn’t a post about software patents, or about the portable patent thicket that is a modern mobile phone.  No, this is a post about what happens when an entire chunk of society runs into an area of law and gets really, really annoyed with what they find.

Remember What Happened to Copyright

It might be hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when most people were largely unaware of copyright.  It wasn’t woven into their everyday lives, and fair use was as obscure a legal term as fee simple.  Copyright was something of a backwater, of interest only to small numbers of people in a handful of industries.

The internet changed that.  It wasn’t so much that people started creating – they had been doing that all along – but rather that they started creating publicly and distributing their creations.  It was also easier (and more public) to work with the creations of others.  Suddenly, copyright started to touch everyone.

And everyone wasn’t necessarily happy with what they saw once they started paying attention.  Things that people steeped in copyright may have taken for granted (wait, there is no central place to actually look up who owns a copyright?) struck people as annoying at best and insane at worst.  This sunlight shook up some of the fundamental assumptions surrounding copyright, unleashed a wave of suggestions on how to fix it, and generally forced most people in the world of copyright to at least give some thought to the theory underlying it.  And we’re still trying to figure out exactly what it all means.

3D Printing, Open Source Hardware, and Maker Culture

It isn’t hard to see a similar dynamic brewing in the world of patents.  People have been making things themselves since the beginning of time.  But new technical advances in digital manufacturing and easy-to-use components, combined with open source hardware and the larger maker culture, all coming together on the existing internet, amplifies the impact.

People are starting to make things, share things, and incorporate existing things into their new creations.  To patent attorneys, this is a potential licensing nightmare. But to the people who are creating, this is just a great development.

This recent post by Zach “Hoeken” Smith is a great example of this developing worldview.  As a co-founder of Makerbot, a zealous (in the best possible way) advocate for open source hardware, and the Program Director at the hardware startup incubator HAXLR8R, Zach is as good of an example of the next wave of innovators as you could ask for. 

His post makes clear that he does not see a particular value in patents, even though he sees a great deal of value in innovation.  His response is to try and use the patent system against itself by publishing a list of ideas that he hopes people will use but never patent.

Patent attorneys might differ on the wisdom or utility of this strategy, but in some ways that is the point.  Zach, and the world of people that I have unwittingly recruited him to represent for the purposes of this post, do not necessarily care about the technical details of patent law. 

They care about innovating.  They care about building things.  And they mostly see patents as getting in the way of that. 

If copyright is any guide, when a mass of people get together with that sort of worldview, things start to get interesting.  And the argument that “we’ve always done it one way” is not enough to carry the day.

But Every Time is Different

It is always dangerous to try and draw exact historical parallels.  It is unlikely that the patent world will change in exactly the same way that the copyright world did.  But it is likely that the patent world is due for a shakeup.

And in some ways, the patent world is even less prepared.  For people creating things in the world of copyright, copyright brought them into the regime.  They automatically received copyright protection on their creations.  And statutory damages theoretically offered a promise of a payoff to justify the cost of an infringement suit.

Patent does none of that.  Patents are not automatic.  In fact, they are expensive (in both time and money) to obtain, and even more expensive to enforce.  For almost all of these new creators, getting patents will never make sense.  They will never be on the beneficial side of the system.  That makes patents a one-way tool used to stop them from doing what they want to do – things that they see as perfectly reasonable.

After the shock subsides, the calls for reform follow.  People start demanding explanations of why patents work they way that they do.  When this happens, cozy assumptions about the way the world works that were developed by a relatively small universe of people rarely stand up to scrutiny.  There is a lot of attention surrounding patent reform today, but it may pale in comparison to what is on the horizon.

Image by flickr user SparkFun Electronics.

My closet doesn’t have an overhead light, which can make finding things a bit hard.  Fortunately, it is pretty easy to install an LED strip to light up the entire thing. 


It should probably go without saying that I’m not an electrician or electrical engineer, so make sure you are careful if you try this yourself.

To do this, you will need:

A strip of LED lights (I used these) ($13)

A power supply (I used this one) ($10)

A DC female barrel jack adapter (I used this one) ($3)

A rocker switch (any switch will probably do, but I used this one) ($1.50)

A box to house the stuff.  I used a plastic box used to mount a light switch or outlet that I got from the local hardware store.  The important characteristics were that it was plastic (so I could drill into it), it was deep enough to hold the switch, and that it had flanges on the outside to make it easy to mount.

A bit of hookup wire (like this) ($2.50)

Electrical tape

2 Nails

Optional: Double sided tape and extension cords

When you get the LED strand you will notice that one side already has an adapter that fits into the power supply.  I suppose you could cut open the adapter and just directly insert the switch, but since the other side of the strand is bare wires and the extra adapter was only $3, I decided to use the other side.

Step 1: Drill holes into the box.  I put one on  the face for the switch and one on the top for the power supply.  Once you have the holes, push the switch in.  If you have strong feelings about which way should be “on,” make sure that the switch is oriented to your power hole is at the top.



Step 2: Connect one of the LED wires to the power supply.  If you didn’t need the switch but you still wanted to use the female connector you got, you could just connect both of the wires.  But assuming you want the switch, just connect one (as far as I know, it doesn’t matter which one).


Step 3: Connect the other side to the switch.  You may notice that the switch actually has three terminals.  The third gold terminal is actually to power the LED in the switch itself.  I didn’t use it, so it won’t be connected.  For this connection, just run a bit of hookup wire from the other terminal of the female connector to one of the silver terminals on the switch.


Step 4: Connect the other side of the LED strand wires to the remaining silver terminal on the switch.


As you can see, the red and black wires that run out of the top of the picture are connected to the LED strand itself.


At this point you should be able to connect your power supply, turn on the switch, and get light.  Assuming that worked for you (if it didn’t check your connections) you can solder up the switch connections and put on some electrical tape to keep them from shorting.  This isn’t absolutely required, but both should help it work more consistently and will reduce the chance that you burn your house down.


It’s easy going from here.  If you need to, run an extension cord into your closet (I tacked the wire to the wall to make it a bit neater) and decide where you want to mount the switch.

Step 5: Mount the switch by nailing the box to the wall.  It’s your closet, so make it whatever height you like.


Running the power cord out of the top of the box should keep it from coming undone.  The wires to the LEDs are small, so I just ran them out of the top next to the wall.

Step 6: Run the LEDs.  The LED strip comes with adhesive backing, so just pull it off and press the LEDs up against the wall.  However, the adhesive backing kind of sucks so I reinforced it will a bit of double sided tape every yard or so.


It can be hard to get the strip to turn corners at the top of your door frame.  Just take your time and move in a long arc, and don’t be afraid to leave some of the strip unattached to the wall to make the turn easier.  Once you have run it up one side, over the top, and down the other side you may have some extra LED strip.  You can cut it wherever there is a white line with a little scissor graphic, about every two inches or so.  Once you’ve done that you are finished.


Content providers paying ISPs special fees to access customers is exactly what net neutrality is supposed to prevent.  It is time for the FCC to heed its own warning.

News broke today that ESPN is in negotiations with at least one major wireless carrier to pay to exempt ESPN content from data caps.  This type of structure, where content providers who pay get better access to customers, is exactly what net neutrality is designed to prevent. 

At its core, net neutrality is all about making sure that the company that connects you to the internet does not get to control what you do on the internet (if you ever forget that, just head on over to WhatIsNetNeutrality.org for a reminder).  Imposing data caps on consumers and then allowing wealthy content holders to buy their way around them is a recipe for stagnation online.

What kinds of problems does this create?  Fortunately, in its Open Internet Order, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provided us with a taste of what may happen (“edge providers” are anyone who creates content like ESPN, Facebook, local governments, and personal websites):

  • “a broadband provider may act to benefit edge providers that have paid it to exclude rivals” (Paragraph 23)
  • “broadband providers may have incentives to increase revenues by charging edge providers, who already pay for their own connections to the Internet, for access or prioritized access to end users.” (Paragraph 24)
  • “Broadband providers would be expected to set inefficiently high fees to edge providers because they receive the benefits of those fees but are unlikely to fully account of the detrimental impact on edge providers’ ability and incentive to innovate and invest, including the possibility that some edge providers might exit or decline to enter the market.” (Paragraph 25)
  • “Fees for access or prioritized access could trigger an ‘arms race’ within a given edge market segment.  If one edge provider pays for access or prioritized access to end users, subscribers may tend to favor that provider’s services, and competing edge providers may feel that they must respond by paying too.” (Paragraph 25)
  • “Fees for access or prioritization to end users could reduce the potential profits that an edge provider would expect to earn from developing new offerings, and thereby reducing edge providers’ incentives to invest and innovate.” (Paragraph 26)
  • “if broadband providers can profitably charge edge providers for prioritized access to end users, they will have an incentive to degrade or decline to increase the quality of the service they provide to non-prioritized traffic.” (Paragraph 29)

The deal being discussed could cause all of these harms and more.  Now is the time for the FCC to step up and preserve an open internet.

Image by flickr user espensorvik.

Friday may well go down as a turning point in the debate around 3D printed guns, and 3D printing policy in general.  Two important sides seemed to step away from confrontation and instead focus on what is important to them.  Defense Distributed included metal parts in their otherwise fully 3D printed handgun.  And Rep. Steve Israel used Defense Distributed’s announcement to raise concerns about undetectable firearms, not 3D printing.  Both should be praised for these decisions.

Bur first, some background

Conversations about firearms have been bubbling around the edges of 3D printing for some time now.  Things really started heating up when an organization called Defense Distributedannounced its intention to help design a fully 3D printed firearm.  This raised some policy concerns (some novel, some not) about home manufacture of firearms.

Perhaps the highest profile critic of Defense Distributed was Rep. Steve Israel.  Although his primary concern was with undetectable firearms, much of his framing seemed to single out one way to make undetectable firearms – 3D printing.  This 3D printing focus came to a head when Rep. Israel sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to other Members of Congress raising fears about 3D printed firearms.

What Defense Distributed did

On Friday, Forbes reported that Defense Distributed released photos of what it claims to be a fully 3D printed handgun.  But the handgun had an important feature – it included six ounces of steel, thus making it a detectable firearm.

This was a savvy decision on Defense Distributed’s part.  The organization has a substantial list of intriguing goals but making a gun that can be smuggled into an airport does not seem to be one of them.  By including metal in the design, Defense Distributed stepped away from what may have been a distracting side conversation. This should allow it to focus on the things it really cares about without unnecessarily reaching into other policy areas.

What Rep. Israel did

We were quite critical of Rep. Israel’s previous Dear Colleague letter.  As we wrote then, the letter seemed to muddle his concerns and be overly-focused on one way to make undetectable firearms, not on undetectable firearms themselves.  Friday’s announcement could have been an opportunity to return to that argument.

But instead, to his credit, Rep. Israel focused on the real concerns that Friday’s announcement raised for him.  In a new Dear Colleague letter, Rep. Israel points to Defense Distributed’s design as a high profile reminder that undetectable firearms are a real possibility.  Rep. Israel’s letter focuses on his real concern – undetectable firearms – without singling out one way to manufacture them.

None of this will be the last word

While these are both encouraging steps, they certainly do not represent the end of the line.  Including metal in a gun design does not mean that it cannot be modified to be undetectable.  And removing 3D printing references from a Dear Colleague letter does not mean that no Member of Congress will ever unnecessarily vilify 3D printing.  

But both sides appear to have shifted their focus back to what they really care about.  This type of evolution is positive for policy conversations surrounding 3D printing.  Hopefully they are signs of positive things to come.  And you can rest assured that we here at Public Knowledge are working to make sure that this momentum keeps moving in the right direction.

Co-Sponsor Legislation to Continue the Ban on Plastic Guns

From: The Honorable Steve Israel
Bill: H.R. 1474
Date: 5/3/2013


Dear Colleague:

As you might have seen today, Defense Distributed unveiled a technologic feat that many said was years from development: a gun made almost completely of plastic. Just as the true threat of plastic guns is becoming more and more apparent, the law that keeps these firearms off of our streets is set to lapse. Now that the technology has advanced to a point where these guns are real and will soon be able to reliably fire bullets, Congress must act. Below please find an article from Forbes outlining today’s news.

I urge you to co-sponsor legislation I introduced to give law enforcement the tools they need to protect American families from plastic firearms and gun components that can slip past security checkpoints. My legislation would extend and update the ban on guns and gun parts that cannot be detected by metal detectors or x-ray machines, entitled the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act.

The Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act would update current law and extend key provisions to include both lower receivers and magazines printed in plastic by individuals. The legislation specifically targets individuals who produce plastic gun components and magazines, while exempting legitimate manufacturers. Extending this ban is necessary to give law enforcement the tools they need to keep plastic guns that can slip through security lines off of our streets.

To sign on as a cosponsor, please contact ******* in my office at *-**** / *********.



Member of Congress


What you will need:

1. Some sort of music source (phone, laptop, basically anything with a headphone out)

2. Speakers

3. Speaker wire

4. An amp (I used this one, which cost $25)

5. A patch cable to connect your source to the amp (I used this one, which cost $2).

6. 4 screws plus 8 non-metal washers (optional)

7. Some straps (I used these, which cost $8) (optional).

The challenge here was to get music into the backyard.  In the old house we just ran some speaker wire from the receiver into the back but, for various reasons, that is no longer an option. While I would love to be able to wirelessly sync all of the speakers in the house to a central source

1) I’m not going to buy a Sonos system with all of its proprietary stuff, and

2) I’m not in the Apple ecosystem so those expensive solutions don’t work, and

3) I don’t have my act together enough to hack a system together myself.

I was thinking about just buying a boombox for the backyard, but they are kind of expensive and the speakers aren’t that good at my price point.  Fortunately, my phone makes a pretty good source for music.  It can tap into the music server that is running at home (mt-daap) with this app, can stream from google music, and generally can do what I need it to do.  I also have a bunch of speakers lying around the house.  But how can I bring these together?

The easy answer is an amp.  The amp just takes a signal from your source (like your phone), AMPlifies it to make it louder, and sends it to the speakers.  It’s kind of like the core of a boombox.

Setting it up is also easy.  All you need to do is connect your phone to a cable that has headphone plugs (1/8") on both end:


The other end goes into the amp:


Then you connect the amp to the speakers (the colors on the terminals matter - make sure to match them):


Power up the amp:


and you are ready to go.

Truth be told, you can leave it there.  However, with a very little extra bit of work you can bring them into a nice package. 

Wrapping the straps around the speakers brings them together (and if you get a good length, you can also use them to create a handle):


And screwing the amp into the speakers keeps it in place:


Try to keep the screws short enough that they don’t go through the side of the speaker.  I wouldn’t necessarily do this with super high-end speakers, but for a set you are going to use in the backyard while you are hanging out it shouldn’t alter them in a way that matters.  The washers are to reduce vibration between the speakers and the amp.

The future

While this is a great solution for now, ideally I would like to tie these speakers more directly into the  main A/V system.  That means either finding a wireless way to connect them to the back of my receiver or creating some sort of client that syncs playback off of the music server.  Both of those would allow me to have the same song playing in all of the speakers in the house.  Right now wireless bridge solutions are kind of crappy and expensive and, as I noted before, I’m not good enough to build the clients.  So for now this will do.