On Friday, Rep. Steve Israel reportedly invoked 3D printing to illustrate his concerns about undetectable plastic firearms.  This may represent the first time that a lawmaker has explicitly linked 3D printing with a perceived threat to society.  Hopefully, Rep. Israel recognizes there is no such thing as a 3D printing-specific solution to the problem of plastic guns.

Let’s be clear about one thing: nobody wants people sneaking guns onto airplanes or into other areas protected by metal detectors.  And we have all seen In the Line of Fire enough times to understand that plastic guns can be smuggled into places that metal guns might never see.  But any attempt to address these concerns should focus on plastic guns, not 3D printers.

Fundamentally, this is because there is not a 3D printing-focused solution to this issue.  3D printers work by turning a digital file into a physical object.  That physical object can be made out of any number of materials.  While a digital file may work better or worse with some materials than others, nothing about the file is inherently tied to a given material. 

This versatility is one of the characteristics that makes 3D printing so powerful.  Even without a 3D printer of your own, you can buy Bathsheba Grossman’s Gyroid sculpture in plastic.  Or steel.  Or silver.  Or glass.  Or sandstone.  You could travel to a Dutch Staples and print it in paper.  You could make nice with Hod Lipson and Jeff Lipton at Cornell and print it in cheese or batter.  That is just as true for a gun file.  The difference between a detectable and undetectable 3D printed gun lies in the printing.  Not the file.

And that file is a digital file just like any other.  For all intents and purposes, once it exists in one place online it exists every place online.  Congress cannot make a file for a 3D printed gun disappear off the internet any more than it can do so for a pirated version of The Avengers.

Finally, there is no way to stop a 3D printer from printing a particular type of thing.  As we havewritten before, a 3D printer is a general purpose machine that can be used to make just about anything – both good anythings and bad anythings. Printers do not run software that checks with a central approved database before they print something out.  In fact, because 3D printerscan print themselves, there is not even a central database that keeps track of all of the 3D printers in the world.

That is why, as a general rule, we do not focus on tools when we are trying to solve a policy problem.  We would never try and stop bombs by passing a law controlling wires or try and stop hacking by passing a law controlling the use of command line tools. 

Instead, we focus on behaviors.  It is illegal to blow something up with a bomb no matter how it was made.  It is illegal to hack into protected database no matter how you do it.   If you believe that people should not be able to carry plastic guns, make it illegal to possess plastic guns.  No one is worried about printing undetectable guns with a 3D printer per se.  They are worried about undetectable guns. 

It is probably a good thing that Rep. Israel is pursuing a conversation about plastic guns, and these days invoking 3D printing is a good way to bring attention to an issue.  But in crafting a solution, hopefully Rep. Israel will focus on the problem – not just a high-profile tool.  After all, if Congress passed a law banning undetectable guns in 1988, and John Malkovitch’s Mitch Leary was creating plastic guns in 1993, eliminating 3D printing from the equation is not going to solve any problems.  But it could cripple the growth of legitimate applications for this promising technology.

While you were preparing to get your Thanksgiving on last week, news broke that one of the oldest and largest 3D printing companies, 3D Systems, was suing one of the newest, Formlabs, for patent infringement.  Besides the obvious question (is Formlabs actually infringing?), the suit raises two other interesting questions: what does it mean when an established 3D printing company sues an upstart for patent infringement?  And why did 3D Systems decide to sue Kickstarter as well?

First, a bit of background 

3D printing has existed since the mid-1980s.  However, it was not until 2007 that Professor Adrian Bowyer created the RepRap – the grandfather of almost all “home” 3D printers available today.  Why the delay?  Largely patents.  

Once the first 3D printing patents began to expire in 2007, the community quickly embraced, and rapidly improved upon, the 20-year old technology.  In just a few years a number of companies were selling their own version of a home 3D printer.  

While each of these printers are unique, almost all of them worked in essentially the same way – they built objects up layer by layer from melted plastic.  This was because everyone in the market was building off of the same expired patents (and was limited by the same existing patents).

That was one of the things that made Formlabs’ FORM 1 printer so interesting.  It had higher resolution and used a fundamentally different technology than most existing printers.  While it was no doubt an impressive feat of  engineering, the real achievement appeared to be a feat of lawyering – how had everyone missed this hole in the existing patent wall?

3D Systems Suing Formlabs

Although there is a great deal of interesting discussion about problems with the patent system (especially software patents) and with the relationship between patents and open source 3D printers, those concerns are not necessarily relevant here. I will not pretend to be an engineer nor a patent attorney (and will update this post when I am corrected in my interpretation), but the patent in question seems to be reasonably close to what people might think of as a “regular” (non-controversial type) patent involving materials science.  The larger debate around patent reform rarely focuses on these types of patents, and no one can accuse 3D Systems of being a non-practicing entity (also known as a troll) or of hiding the fact that they own many patents related to 3D printing.

Similarly, the larger openness question does not directly apply to this case.  Formlabs may not have patented its technology, but it has not embraced openness either.  From an openness standpoint, this is essentially one closed company suing another.

All of this means that 3D Systems’ decision to sue Formlabs should not automatically make it a bad actor.  If they had a valid patent and Formlabs was infringing upon it, they have every right to sue. Furthermore, if Formlabs was able to beat all of its (consumer-grade) competitors by ignoring the patent that was keeping everyone else away from a better 3D printing technology, they should not necessarily be rewarded.

Of course, if 3D Systems loses aginst Formlabs it does raise a few questions, not the least of which are “have the home 3D printing compaines been avoiding this technology for no reason?” and “why hasn’t 3D Systems tried to sell this technology to the consumer market?”

3D Systems Suing Kickstarter

This is a bit more troubling, and could have a significant chilling effect on Kickstarter as a catalyst for innovation.  For those of you who are familiar with how websites that host third party copyrighted content work online, this section is going to sound familiar.  

Just as requiring YouTube or Facebook to review every video or post for copyright infringement would make it impossible for those sites to operate, requiring Kickstarter to review every project for patent compliance would effectively end its ability to host hardware startups.  While it is true that Kickstarter already reviews projects before they go live, that review is for compliance with a set of fairly straightforward project guidelines.  Requiring a full patent check for every hardware startup would fundamentally change the verification burden (this is not to say that Kickstarter does not have any obligations to existing rightsholders, as illustrated here).  

While retailers often deal with concerns about patent liability by demanding indemnification from their suppliers, that guarantee is near useless to a site like Kickstarter.  Kickstarter is a place for projects to find their launch funding.  Almost by definition, that means that they do not have very much money.  As a result, a promise from a project to cover Kickstarter if it gets sued for patent infringement is unlikely to be backed up by very much actual money.

In light of this, including Kickstarter in the suit could be read as an attempt to push Kickstarter away from hosting hardware startups in the first place.  Since new 3D printers are one of the most popular types of hardware startups on the site, this could be interpreted as 3D Systems trying to use its patent to cut off the flow of rivals – not just shutting down one that infringes on its patent.

Moving Forward

In many ways, this is a sad story.  It will be unfortunate if it turns out that Formlabs did not really find a way through the patent wall surrounding one of the more advanced 3D printing techniques.  It will be unfortunate if it turns out that Formlabs did manage to find a way through the patent wall but has to spend a great deal of money proving it.  It will also be unfortunate if 3D Systems’ inclusion of Kickstarter in its suit makes it harder for new 3D printers – and all hardware projects – to get funding.  

It will also be sad if it contributes to the narrative that traditional 3D printer companies are uninterested – or unwilling – to serve the emerging home market.  Sometimes these existing companies look like the old mainframe companies at the dawn of the PC age – pointing out all of the things that the new home printers cannot do, while looking past the things that they can do at a fraction of the cost of existing “powerful” machines.  

For the past year, it has looked like 3D Systems was interested in engaging the home market.  To their credit they rolled out their own home 3D printer, albeit with the same expired patent technology that everyone else was using. They did not seem interested in turning any of their still-patented technology into an affordable consumer-grade model, but they were interested in offering the home market a product. 

Now, they have not only sued a company that tried to bring next-generation technology to consumers but also the pipeline for the next-next 3D printing company.  

It is not clear what will come of this lawsuit, or even what should come of it.  As long as we have a patent system, 3D Systems has every right to defend its valid patents and Formlabs has every right to prove that it did not infringe (or that the patent is invalid).  At the same time, one could hope that 3D Systems might try and bring new options to the market, not just block others from doing so.  Furthermore, including Kickstarter in this fight, which has fueled the creation of so much hardware innovation, seems like a decision designed to alienate exactly the type of people who you might want to sell 3D printers to in the future.

And so now we watch.  This may be one of the first patent lawsuits to affect the home 3D printing market, but probably for reasons beyond Formlabs’ survival.  It could effectively shut Kickstarter’s door to hardware startups.  It could also signal that traditional 3D printing companies are more interested in suing the consumer market out of existence than cultivating it.  In any event, it is certainly something worth watching.

Today the Register of Copyrights and the Librarian of Congress announced the 1201 exemptions.  You may remember that the 1201 review is the triannual process whereorganizations, communities, and individuals request permission to circumvent Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies that prevent them from doing otherwise perfectly legal things.  This time around, Public Knowledge requested an exemption that would allow people to rip DVDs they already own in order to transfer the movie to a device that cannot play DVDs (like a tablet).

That request was rejected.  Furthermore, the Register and the Librarian explained that they were unconvinced that space shifting was fair use at all.  That has huge implications well beyond people who want to watch the movies they own on DVD on their iPad.

“Space Shifting” is what you do any time to take a file and move it from one medium to another.  The best known example of this is probably ripping CDs to move the songs on to digital music devices like iPods.  If you think it is ridiculous that such activity is illegal, you are right.  

And the RIAA and the MPAA agree with you.  In 2005, their lawyer (now the Solicitor General of the United States) assured the Supreme Court that “The record companies, my clients, have said, for some time now, and it’s been on their Website for some time now, that it’s perfectly lawful to take a CD that you’ve purchased, upload it onto your computer, put it onto your iPod.“

Movie executives agree as well.  Mitch Singer, the Chief Technology Officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment explained to author Robert Levine that the idea for the movie industry’s UltraViolet program evolved out of Singer’s own frustration with transferring movies between PCs in his home.

So do members of Congress.  Earlier this year, Representative Darrell Issa did a IAmA on Reddit.  Rep. Issa told Redditors that it was already perfectly legal to make personal copies of DVDs for their own use.

If all of this, combined with the fact that all major media management software comes with space shifting technology built into it out of the box, is not enough for the Register of Copyrights and the Librarian of Congress, then it is time to for Congress to step up.  

Public Knowledge has already proposed a bill, hosted on the Internet Blueprint,that would incorporate noncommercial personal uses into the definition of fair use.  Congress needs to pass the bill in order to make clear that the millions of Americans who have copied songs they own onto their iPods and movies they own onto their laptops and tablets are not copyright infringers.

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.