I put things here so they are on the internet

Michael Weinberg

I put things here so they are on the internet

3D printing means more people are becoming professional designers, creating and selling even more things.  Although most of these designers are creating wholly original objects, it should not be a surprise that some are building off of existing TV shows, movies, and books.  The result: the world of merchandising is about to confront a long tail that can’t be monitored or controlled.  How should rightsholders respond?  By embracing it.

While it will be a long time before 3D printers deliver custom cell phones and hot tea on demand, today it is beginning to usher in a new era in product design.  With access to low cost 3D printers, individual designers and small design shops can rapidly prototype and perfect physical goods.  They can then turn to more sophisticated 3D printing services that can print finished products on demand.  Suddenly, you do not need to be associated with a large company to sell professional-quality physical goods to the public.  

One benefit of this is that the universe of people trying to think of physical things based on TV shows, movies, and books is going to get a lot bigger.  This will lead to more interesting, creative, and unexpected products.  However, this diversity comes at a cost.  A rightsholder used to dealing with a handful of potential marketing partners must now find a way to sort through multitudes of ideas coming from all corners of the internet.  That rightsholder may be forgiven for thinking that any great new ideas are not worth the effort of searching for them.

But rightsholders may not have the luxury of ignoring this shift.  Take, for example, HBO and the designer Fernando Sosa.  Sosa created a cell phone dock designed to look like the Iron Throne from the HBO series Game of Thrones.  He began pre-selling the dock and intended to 3D print them for customers.  Unfortunately for Sosa, he did not have a license from HBO.  Upon learning of the product HBO, citing existing exclusive contracts with other merchandisers, sent Sosa a letter requesting that he stop offering it for sale.

Although nominally the end of the story, in taking down Sosa’s dock HBO also created a problem: it wasn’t selling them either.  Sosa had identified a market for Iron Throne phone docks.  But by insisting that Sosa stop selling his, HBO had taken away the only way that a customer could pay for such a thing.  This was a missed opportunity. 

A Different Path

How could HBO have responded differently?  It could have negotiated a license with Sosa for his dock.  That would have allowed Sosa’s customers to purchase the object and HBO to make some money from the transaction.  

But even that would only have been a short-term solution.  After all, the world is full of people like Sosa who love HBO shows and have great ideas for turning them into attractive products.  Why not bring them all in at once?

One way to do this would be to create a transparent, available license.  Simply put, HBO could make an offer to any designer: turn Game of Thrones into a product.  Let us know about it.  Sell it.  And give us a cut.  They could even include a caveat excluding some categories of products and reserving the right to revoke the license for specific products they find problematic.

Even with those limitations, such an offer could lead to an explosion of creative objects.  HBO would benefit from the increased publicity from the objects and, not incidentally, from a percentage of the sales.  Designers would benefit from the knowledge that they could actually bring their dream product to market at the beginning of the design process.  HBO and any individual designer would be free to negotiate a different arrangement, but the offer would create some certainty without requiring an additional negotiation.

Of course, some might worry that such an available license would lead to a loss of control for HBO and for rightsholders more generally.  For better or worse (and mostly better), 3D printing makes it much easier for anyone to create physical objects.  That means that rightsholders’ current control may be more illusory than it appears.  Recognizing that early could be a competitive advantage.  Rightsholders are certainly free to continue playing takedown letter whack-a-mole for every new design that pops up on the internet, but that strategy has its limits.  In the end, it may be easier to harness the collective creativity of designers than try to stop it.

Today’s example of copyright coming into contact with 3D printing is a 3D printed phone dock made to look like Game of Throne’s Iron Throne.  The facts are fairly straightforward: DesignerFernando Sosa modeled the dock on the Iron Throne featured in HBO’s Game of Thrones series.  HBO sent him a takedown notice, claiming a copyright on the throne.  Sosa took the throne down.

On its face, this appears to be a textbook application of the DMCA takedown process in action.  However, it also highlights something of a missed opportunity for HBO.

Let’s assume that the chair itself is protected by copyright (while chairs are generally considered functional objects outside of the scope of copyright, the non-functional decorative elements of the Iron Throne pretty much define it for modeling purposes).  Because of this, HBO absolutely has the right to request non-licensed reproductions be taken down.  Furthermore, HBO absolutely has the right to request that those reproductions be taken down because they have already sold the rights to make an Iron Throne phone dock to someone else.

But here is the missed opportunity: this story is drawing the public’s attention to the idea of an Iron Throne phone dock.  It is likely that some of the people learning about the dock would like to purchase it.  But, as of right now, there is no way for them to do so.

And this was one of the central failures of the other industries’ responses to the internet.  These industries (music and movies come to mind) initially spent time and money stopping people from making things available online, but spent very little time and money giving people a way to pay for things online.

Now, I’m not saying that HBO is the music industry or that it was necessarily a bad idea to request that this particular design be taken down.  For all I know, tomorrow the licensed Iron Throne phone dock will be for sale.

But for now, they have given a number of people who want to pay for an Iron Throne phone dock no way to do so.  Long term, that is not a sustainable way for anyone to react to 3D printed disruption.  

All of this makes CCIA’s Matt Schruers’ question:“where can a geek buy a phone throne?” all the more relevant.  If the answer is “nowhere,” then you are doing it wrong.

This whitepaper examines the relationship between copyright and 3D printing, focusing specifically on how copyright could be used to hinder the development and growth of 3D printing.

A PDF of this paper can be found here.

A Kindle version of this paper can be found here.

One of the most common questions I get about 3D printing from reporters is “what is going to happen when companies discover this and start freaking out?”  More specifically, what happens when an industry has a “Napster moment” and decides that these crazy 3D printers are destroying their business model?

My usual answer is that I hope that the industry (whatever it is) learns from history and does not simply repeat it.  When the internet became widely available and Napser showed just how easy it was to distribute music online, the music industry’s first reaction was to sue.  The industry dedicated time, money, and effort to trying to turn back innovation and protect a business model that was suddenly outdated.  It took years, and essentially being tricked by Apple, before the industry started dedicating some of that time, money, and effort to monetizing the internet. 

Hopefully, the first industry disrupted by 3D printing skips phase one (sue everyone and pretend the technology does not exist) and jumps right to phase two (figure out how to turn this new technology into a way to make money).  Encouragingly, there is some evidence that this is actually happening.

The first example of this was Teenage Engineering, a company that makes synthesizers.  These synthesizers have small plastic parts, and sometimes those parts break.  Unfortunately, it was costing their customers a lot of money to replace these small plastic parts because shipping them was expensive.  Teenage Engineering decided to put the CAD files for the parts up on its site so that its customers could just print their own.

Today, we have a similar example of an even larger company viewing 3D printing as an opportunity, not a threat.  Nokia announced that it was releasing CAD files for the back shells of one of its phones.  This allows consumers to create their own customized back plates for their phones and print them out on their own.

Simply put, this is great news.  When confronted with widespread access to 3D printing, both of these companies are asking “how can I use this to my advantage?” not “how can I sue to stop this?”  Going forward, hopefully more companies decide to learn from history and follow these examples.

The general reaction to the idea of expanding DRM to 3D printing has been, encouragingly, negative.  DRM has completely failed to slow the supply of unauthorized copies of music, movies, and books online.  At the same time it has succeeded in frustrating perfectly legitimate uses of copyrighted content.  There is no reason to think that either of those outcomes would be different if DRM was applied to 3D printing.  However, there could be a way to apply DRM-like techniques to 3D printing in a positive, consumer-friendly way.

Two distinct categories of DRM

Broadly speaking, there are two types of DRM.  The first is DRM that focuses on the needs of sellers.  This is DRM that is generally associated with music, movies, and books, and basically treats all users like they are criminals a click away from committing copyright infringement.  The second is DRM that focuses on the needs of the buyers.  Truth be told, this is not really DRM at all.  Instead, this is a bundle of techniques that allow users to trace the origin of a particular good.  It has more in common with trademark than copyright, and could also be thought of as digital verification technology (DVT).

Pro-seller DRM, the kind that does not work

DRM, as a stand-alone protection for copyright-protected works, is fatally flawed.  It assumes that as long as an average user cannot circumvent copy protection, no unauthorized copies will be made.  However, because the protected works are digital, an average user does not have to be able to circumvent copy protection.  As soon as one not-so-average user breaks the digital lock and creates an unprotected copy, that copy is available to everyone.  Average users do not need to be able to break the lock themselves – they can just find the unprotected copy made by the person who broke it for them.

Because of this flaw, DRM does not actually provide a benefit to creators.  However, it does impose a cost on users.  DRM can cause platform lock-in, making it hard to transfer things like movies or books between devices.  It can also create a barrier to otherwise legitimate uses – a problem that the Copyright Office tries but fails to address every three years.  

The fundamental weakness of pro-seller DRM is that consumers have no real interest in maintaining its integrity.  A legitimate purchaser who only wants to use media within the scope of DRM-allowed parameters never really comes into contact with it.  A legitimate purchaser who wants to use media in a way that is legal but exceeds the DRM parameters sees it as a nuisance (at best).  An illegitimate copier circumvents the DRM herself or simply finds a copy that has already been separated from DRM.  None of these users has an incentive to support the integrity of the DRM scheme.  

Pro-Consumer DRM, a kind that could work

Contrast this traditional role for DRM with a slightly different application – digital verification technology (DVT).  The role of DVT is not to prevent unauthorized copying on behalf of sellers.  Instead, DVT is designed to assure consumers that the file they have will produce the object they want.

While this type of verification could be used in the digital world (and is used in the form ofchecksums), in general it is not necessary.  A digital copy is, by definition, an exact copy.  A copy of a movie downloaded from iTunes can be copied identically tens, hundreds, thousands of times.  For an end user, the original authorized copy will produce exactly the same movie as the thousandth copy.

The transition from digital to physical makes copying less reliable.  The same digital file can produce meaningfully different physical objects when printed by different types of 3D printers. Even two identical 3D printers will produce slightly different physical objects.

Sometimes these differences will not matter to a consumer.  But other times they will.  It is not hard to imagine that someone printing a functional part for an industrial machine would be interested in knowing that the source file is the file that will produce the correct object on the 3D printer being used, not just a reasonable approximation of that file. 

This is where DVT comes in.  Not every consumer will be interested in using DVT for every print.  Someone buying “designer” sunglasses from a table set up on the sidewalk may not be interested in verifying where the sunglasses were really made or that they were designed correctly.  Similarly, someone downloading a file for designer sunglasses from some dark corner of the internet may not care about the file’s source. 

However, there are plenty of instances where consumers will care.  After all, consumers care about being able to verify that their medicine really came from a factory that was using active ingredients.  They could also care that someone who knew what they were doing designed the latch holding the hood of their car shut – or the bracket supporting the shelf over their head.  This does not mean that the file the consumer is using is an authorized copy.  Rather, it means that the file for the object is actually a copy of the “real” file – not just a file that has been reversed engineered with an unknown degree of accuracy. 

Every person using a 3D printer may not want, or care, to implement this technology.  But it is likely that many will.   Unlike DRM, this consumer interest means that DVT might actually work.  Instead of assuming the end user is a criminal, DVT enlists the consumer as a willing partner.  

A Useful Path Forward

Work is already being done on this type of technology.  For example, Professors Daniel G. Aliaga and Mikhail J. Atallah at Purdue University have been working on embedding signatures in physical objects.  This information could be ignored by an uninterested consumer, but could be highly valuable to a consumer searching for assurances that the file they are using came from a trusted designer and printer.

Of course, there are also individuals and companies discussing more traditional DRM in the context of 3D printing.  They are free to continue what will likely be a wasted effort, at least unless they begin trying to require all 3D printers to implement it.

Going forward, hopefully innovators will focus on ways to give consumers who want it confidence in the source of their digital files and, ultimately, physical goods.  As 3D printing becomes more prominent and 3D printed goods become more common, quality will be critical to convincing the public that the technology is more than a fad.  Allocating development resources in this way, instead of in a futile attempt to prevent unauthorized copies, will be much more beneficial in the long term.