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After a couple of decades of promise, the 3D printer has finally started to make an appearance in "the real world" at a price that many people can afford.
Depending on your needs, you can now pick up such a device for as little as $1,000 and it will create, seemingly out of thin air, just about anything you can imagine -- or at least anything you can model on a computer.
Stand by for an explosion in creativity, once these printers become ubiquitous.
While some of us have, for years, been whittling away at bits of metal and plastic using tools such as lathes, milling machines, files, rasps, drills and the like - it has now become almost trivial to print even the most complex shapes without the mess, noise and danger associated with the "old school" whittling techniques.
However, this new-found freedom should be enjoyed while we have it. Unfortunately I (and plenty of other commentators) fear that it will be short-lived.
The problem is one of intellectual property rights.
In short, just as copyright covers property such as music and movies, there's plenty of legal protection for physical designs and you can bet your bottom dollar that the companies which have invested large amounts of money creating handy widgets will not want every man and his dog printing their own without paying a dime.
Right now, the blatant copying of existing bits of physical product aren't much of a problem. That's because 3D printers are slow, still not that common and the cost of printing may be as much as the cost of purchasing the real thing.
There's also an issue of actually turning an existing store-bought item into the computer codes needed to drive your 3D printer.
The real turning point for physical piracy will come when we also get low-cost 3D scanners -- and they're not far away.
Low-cost laser scanners that can turn your store-bought widget into a set of 3D printer codes or a virtual model in your computer's memory are not far away -- and once this hurdle is jumped then we'll all be able to scan and print whatever we want. Even more interestingly, we'll be able to scan, modify and print whatever we want.
Eventually we'll see P2P feeds filled to overflowing with 3D printer files for all manner of useful things -- a great many of them simply having been scanned from an original and then made available to others.
How on earth will manufacturers and designers respond to this threat to the profits they'd otherwise make from their trademarked, patented and copyrighted designs?
Well I'm picking there are just two avenues that could be taken:
The first (and easiest) solution is to ban or restrict the sale and use of 3D printers in the name of protecting existing industries and (undoubtedly) in the name of national security. We've already seen that it's possible to print significant parts of firearms using one of these devices so politicians probably think it would be easy to implement a full or partial ban based on this fact. Maybe you'll need a special license to buy a 3D printer and have to keep strict logs of what you've printed and when.
The second solution would be to mandate that all 3D printers and scanners have a form of DRM built into them and that they will only work when connected to the Net -- so that the results of any dataset (created by a scan or submitted to a printer) can be compared with the database of registered designs which are to be protected. This would work in much the same way that YouTube's "content match" system works.
Scan that "designer coffee set" and you'll get a DRM fail because its dimensions match those submitted by the designer when they registered their design. You won't be able to print or save that scan until you've paid a licensing fee which will be good for only a fixed number of copies.
Yes of course such DRM-enabled scanners and printers will be hacked -- but the vast majority of people will be stuck with paying for (or being denied) the ability to print any of the registered designs (or any of their own designs that trigger a false-match).
Actually, I just thought of another way to reimburse designers and manufacturers for lost earnings...
There could be a media-tax applied to 3D printers and their consumables. A hefty levy could be added and that money then distributed to all those who have registered their designs -- so as to compensate them for the inevitable piracy that will occur. After all, this works for the music and movie industries in places like Canada and Germany -- right? (Cue Tui's ad).
At this point, I feel I should stop giving idiots silly ideas.
End of today's column.
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