I put things here so they are on the internet

Michael Weinberg

I put things here so they are on the internet

Last week, Rep. Steve Israel introduced a bill designed to regulate firearms that cannot be found by metal detectors.  The bill makes a passing reference the 3D printing, which is fine.  But the rhetoric that Rep. Israel is using to promote the bill is both muddled and overblown, and focuses almost exclusively on 3D printing.  This is a problem.

As part of the bill introduction process, Rep. Israel circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter to his fellow Members of Congress asking them to co-sponsor the legislation.  The title of the letter?  “Co-Sponsor Legislation to Ban 3D Printed Guns”

In the letter, he points to a CNN article about 3D printed guns as one that “describes the issue and intent of my legislation.”  Later, he dramatically asks “what good will gun safety laws do if guns and gun parts can be printed in a basement using plans found online?”

This is the worst kind of fear mongering.  While 3D printed guns may get headlines, the details are bit less salacious.  That’s part of the reason that the ATF – the government agency tasked with overseeing firearms – is monitoring them but is not overly concerned.

What is Driving the Bill?

And what is Rep. Israel actually concerned about?  What motivated him to act now?  It can be hard to say.  If it is making guns at home, that ship sailed long ago.  The ATF website itselfassures people that they can make guns at home and it is probably safe to assume that people have been doing so since before the United States was the United States.

What about the idea of downloading guns? Again, nothing particularly new here.  Although the group Defense Distributed has gotten a great deal of attention lately, they are largely building off the work of a preexisting community.  The folks over at CNCguns have made plans availablesince at least 2007 that could be used in a CNC mill – that means they could be used to download and make metal guns at home.

But Rep. Israel’s letter talks briefly about plastic guns that could be smuggled through metal detectors.  Should we be concerned about those?  Public Knowledge is not involved in gun policy, so I will leave that decision up to you.  But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you are concerned about plastic guns being smuggled through metal detectors.  There are plenty of ways to make plastic guns, many of which can be done at home (and have existed for some time).  Why focus on 3D printing specifically?  Consider this question another way: if someone sneaks a gun into an airport, is the first thing you think to yourself “But what technology did he use to construct the gun?  Because I’m only worried if he made it with a 3D printer.”? 

Confused by Hype

Rep. Israel seems to be feeding, and at the same time confused by, the hype surrounding 3D printed guns.  In many cases, this hype tends to ignore the distinction between the 3D printers that are becoming available to people at home and 3D printers that have been available to companies for decades.  Defense Distributed appears to have successfully created prototypes, but those prototypes have been printed on machines costing tens of thousands of dollars.  If you have 20 or 30 thousand dollars to spend, there are plenty of ways to set up a home gun factory.  A 3D printer is far from your best option. Today, from a practical standpoint, the idea of everyday people downloading and printing their own guns at home on a 3D printer is just– to use Rep. Israel’s word – “science fiction.”

The Actual Bill and Why Words Matter

After reading Rep. Israel’s letter, actually reading the legislation may come as a shock.  The legislation has almost nothing to do with 3D printing and everything to do with undetectable firearms.  We should know – we worked with his office to make sure that the law did not unnecessarily demonize 3D printing (or any other general purpose maker technology).  And if the language in the law is OK, why are we worried?

Because framing and words matter, especially in regards to new technology.  With this letter, Rep. Israel is essentially telling his colleagues “when you think 3D printing, think dangerous weapons.”  For many Members this letter will be their first contact with 3D printing, and they will assume that firearms are all that it is good for.  That initial connection may be a step towards reactionary, poorly considered regulation of 3D printing.

Of course, we are doing our best to make sure that does not happen.  In addition to working with Members like Rep. Israel, we are introducing Congress to 3D printing on more positive terms.  On April 24th we are setting up shop in Congress with over 20 companies and organizations who will show Members and staff the possibilities of 3D printing if it is not stifled.  Please join us to see for yourself what 3D printing is really good for.


This is the letter circulated by Rep. Israel:

Co-Sponsor Legislation to Ban 3D Printed Guns
From: The Honorable Steve Israel
Date: 4/10/2013


Cosponsor the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act


Dear Colleague:

I urge you to co-sponsor legislation I introduced today to give law enforcement the tools they need to protect American families from firearms and gun components that come straight off a 3D printer. 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 original Undetectable Firearms Act was passed in 1988 when a plastic gun was science fiction, and now that technology has advanced to a point where these guns are being developed to fire bullets, Congress must act to extend this ban. Below I have included a recent CNN piece that describes the issue and intent of my legislation.

Defense Distributed, a group based in Austin, Texas, has been working since late last year towards a single goal: using a 3-dimensional printer to manufacture a plastic firearm. So far the group has been successful in manufacturing a fully plastic, fully functional lower receiver for an AR-15, the same gun used in the Sandy Hook shooting, as well as high capacity magazines for the AR-15 and AK-47. Recently, the group’s founder has stated that they will be able to produce a working 3D printed gun by the end of April. These developments beg the question- what good will gun safety laws do if guns and gun parts can be printed in a basement using plans found online?

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.



Member of Congress

The letter also included a link to and the full text of this article.

The Wrong Tool for the Job examines the role that price discrimination can play in broadband pricing and considers the different ways to to implement a price discrimination strategy.  It concludes that, while price discrimination can be an effective way to increase access to broadband, data-based pricing is an inefficient and counter-productive means to that worthy end.

A PDF of the paper can be downloaded here.

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.