When I wrote an article for FSM a few years ago about 3D printing it was a big topic in the open-source community but it had not yet gone fully mainstream. If there was one thing guaranteed to make 3D printing explode onto the mainstream news media it was an item about someone "printing" a gun. That got your attention, didn't it? Mine too. It's controversial of course but it might just be the beginning of a rerun of the Napster/Piratebay episodes in the 21st century - with the inevitable debate between patent-free, non-hierarchical open-source models and patent-encumbered proprietary software and hardware. Napster was a ripple. 3D printing will be a tsunami.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the important matter of 3D printing should enter the media mainstream because a 25 year-old law graduate, Cody Wilson, decided to purchase a Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer, subsequently repossessed by the company and replaced second hand for $8,000. He used it, in conjunction with open source blueprints, to manufacture a fully functioning ABS plastic gun which was fired successfully.(You can view the video for it here. It's called "The Liberator". (Well, at least he didn't call it "the Terminator"). It is composed of sixteen parts, of which fifteen are plastic. The firing pin is metal (and Wilson, who owns a Federal firearms manufacturer's license, inserted a six ounce piece of metal into the gun to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act).
I'm a Brit and I don't have a dog in that fight
So far, so interesting but Wilson is not some petty criminal looking to make his own weapon simply to commit a crime with an untraceable weapon that evades security/ID checks. The subject of course is both topical and highly controversial, especially coming not long after the Sandyhook shooting. However, the purpose of this article is not to get into an overheated debate about gun control in the USA. I'm a Brit and I don't have a dog in that fight--thought I would be fascinated to see the NRA's take on the matter. It might have been better though if 3D printing had come to greater prominence with a less spectacular application but then it would have barely registered on the news radar.
The clue in all of this is Wilson's name for the plastic gun--the liberator. His thinking belongs clearly in the hacker and open-source community way of thinking and doing. He is interested in the politics of creating a repository for weapons designs. More importantly, he wants the turn Defcad into "the world's first unblockable open search engine for all 3D printable parts". Well, as you might have guessed the US government compelled Wilson to remove the files for the gun from the Defcad website (which is why I haven't bothered to give you the link to that specific item as all you will get will be an Apache Port 80 message that the page is not available) on the grounds that it may not comply with ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations).
It seems that Wilson, by intentionally making the 3D file freely available globally for download, was, in the terms of the US Department of State letter invoking ITAR, an arms trafficker. And this is the same person who openly mocked and taunted the US government legislating to limit the size of high-capacity gun magazines by uploading a video to YouTube demonstrating his 3D-printed gun magazine.You might disagree with him but, if you will excuse the language, he's got balls. After Sandyhook. I'll give him that. So has Eric Raymond (of The Cathedral and the Bazaar fame). As a self confessed "gun nut" he supports Wilson, if only because he thinks that the government shouldn't have a monopoly on violence.
However, this is the internet and the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. They couldn't block Wikileaks and even before the page was taken down, it is believed that more than 100,000 people downloaded the gun files and they have, inevitably, found their way onto Piratebay. I had no difficulty locating the files. The point that needs to be made here--and repeated ad nauseam-- is that the internet is a fundamental game changer. It will make the Industrial Revolution look like a side show by comparison. And that's really saying something. Before US lawmakers and other enforcement agencies around the world indulge in an unwinnable digital arms races, frantically passing one law after another in an effort to shore up the crumbling dyke walls (and just running out digital fingers in the process) they need to understand one simple lesson, one inexorable truth: once something is out there on the internet it is virtually impossible to shut it down. Of course, when that escaped genie is also released under a free and permissive license it merely acts like Uranium enrichment in a nuclear chain reaction. Unstoppable.
at Defcon, the world's largest hacker conference, hackers mingled with Second Amendment enthusiasts
That, in a way, is part of the point that Wilson was trying to make. I have a shrewd suspicion that he knew full well that it was odds on that there would be a legal challenge at federal level but that the by the time the lumbering machinery of government had cranked up into action the bird would have escaped the cage for freer climes. Mind you, the situation had generated some interesting paradoxes and ambiguities too. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has pledged to support Wilson and given its record, I'm pretty sure that it is no bosom buddy of the NRA and approves broadly of some form of gun control. That would conflict with its libertarian outlook though. So, at Defcon, the world's largest hacker conference, hackers mingled with Second Amendment enthusiasts. Since Wilson admires Proudhon and Baudrillard and describes himself as a crypto-anarchist he would be quite unphased by this seemingly strange confluence.Indeed, the two groups have in common both a distrust and dislike of government.
governments should live in fear of their citizenry
The truth is that Wilson focused on a gun as a stalking horse to highlight the perennial issue of the free flow of information. He is interested in "the broader discussion of the internet and the way information moves through it" and believes that the attempt to control the flow of information and technology itself is the antithesis of distributed technology. Wilson is only twenty five years old so he is still in the first flush of callow, youthful idealism, unsullied by the wearied cynicism that comes with experience and age but I do have to warm to his observation both that "the future is openess to the point of the eradication of government" and that "governments should live in fear of their citizenry". I don't like or trust any government but my experience and reading convinces me that there is, regrettably, an irreducible minimum level of government below which society probably cannot exist or survive in any bearble form. Nevertheless, what Wilson has done is to highlight in a high profile and dramatic fashion the hugely disruptive potential of 3D printing. Plastic artefacts are only the start. It is possible to 3D print in metal too. Admittedly, those examples are small scale but there is no barrier in principle to scaling up to industrial level products. Wikipedia has some excellent documentation about types of printers available and the materials with which they can work.
Commercial 3D printers are not cheap but thanks to RepRap, open source printers capable of replicating themselves are available and relatively cheap by comparison. Besides, as you might have guessed, prices are falling. 3D printers costing $20,000 have plummeted to less than $1,000 and buying your own machine is becoming increasingly affordable -- anywhere from $400 to $25,000. They can only fall further and perhaps will be as ubiquitous in the home as computers are today. I remember when video recorders started to appear. They were expensive and a sales assistant solemnly assured me that I would never be able to purchase one for less than £600. By the time the (analogue) video recorder was on the verge of obsolesense you could snag one for £50 before they all made a one way journey to the electronic recycling centre.So, what captain of industry will ever dare to say that there will never be a need for more than eight computers in the whole world, all of them costing a fortune? A brave fool indeed. The truth is that the potential of 3D printing is barely imagined.
So, the cost barrier has largely been overcome. That was the easy part. The real problems come with issues of copyright and patents. The EFF understands this and has already challenged a number of bogus 3D printing patents because any number of would be Darl McBrides are waiting in the wings to launch patent trolls. The Wired website already has a worrying list of ten patents that could seriously impede the development of open 3D printing. In this context, in October last year, a company called Intellectual Ventures was granted a patent filed back in 2008 that effectively seems to prevent a 3D printer working by embedding a digital authorisation code in the object file. To quote the US Patent and Trademark Office's own words:
"Methods and systems for a manufacturing control system include but are not limited to identifying at least one object data file configured to produce an object by a manufacturing machine; confirming that an authorization code is associated with the object data file, the authorization code configured to be received by the manufacturing machine, the manufacturing machine adapted to receive the authorization code; and enabling the manufacturing machine to interface with the object data file only if the authorization code meets one or more predetermined conditions"
Is Intellectual Ventures really a patent troll, the SCO of the 21st century?
If you think that sounds like DRM, you'd be right. In fact, the patent actually does use that term. Is Intellectual Ventures really a patent troll, the SCO of the 21st century? Already they have amassed, via a $5 billion investment fund, 70,000 intellectual assets on numerous technologies, controlling about 40,000 asssets.If you're inclined to give then the benefit of the doubt, you might hesitate when you discover that the company was founded to ex Microsoft employees.
The matter of software patents and copyright has been a huge, central and abiding topic at the heart of the open-source community but they are beyond the scope of this present article. A trip to Wikipedia is recommended and I might also commend two excellent, in-depth articles by Michael Weinberg at Public Knowledge: It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology and, more recently, What's the Deal with Copyright and 3D Printing?. Both articles are available as PDF downloads as well as HTML in browser.
As Weinberg points out, the copyright habit is addictive but we discover that when it comes to the intellectual copyright on physical objects, many are not in fact protected, but protected only by patents. That is because copyright concerns itself with creative works while patents deal with technical works. That distinction will cause many to be confused and attempt to go down the route pursued in the creative arts industries like music and use the DCMA sledgehammer. This is sure to lead to a plethora of legal challenges in the courts. The legal wrangles between Apple and Samsung spring to mind. As 3D printing becomes ubiquitous many manufacturers may discover that they lack an kind of protection altogether and launch a frenzy of patents and legal challenges. Someone's going to get rich and it will probably be the black-gowned vultures (lawyers). As usual.
Before things get to that pass the open source community needs to mobilize and occupy the high ground before a repeat of the file sharing history of the last fifteen years when the corporate behemoths successfully managed to associate file sharing with piracy in the public and legal minds. In the meantime, there is, as with conventional 2D computer printers, a potential choke point: Something important about the current state of the 3D printing business which is lacking mention in the Public Knowledge article is that most (nearly all) of the manufacturers of the many different 3D printers currently very tightly control the materials used by their printers - selling them at prices and using techniques as or more strict than the sellers of printer ink utilize (some 3D printers OEM's use RFID chips embedded in blocks of printer material to verify that only their materials are being used in their printers). And a 3D printer without materials is like a computer without an operating system.
This time they'll try to use the digital gallows of patent law
Before the industrial revolution manufacturing was often literally a cottage industry and people only moved in large numbers to work in cities when the first factories were built powered by steam and latterly electricity. Ironically, 3D printing could see a partial reversal of that centralisation and with it a transfer of power and control over the means of some production to private individuals again. Vested corporate interests will fight that tooth and nail. First time round they used penal transportation and the hangman's noose to execute British Luddites. This time they'll try to use the digital gallows of patent law.
The internet is frequently described by its detractors as "the wild west". When 3D printers go critical, as it were, that term will sound mild by comparison. The D in 3D also stands for disruptive. There will be the usual attempts to tame that wild west with laws. It will result in another legal and cultural frontier war but the internet will remain untameable. In the meantime, I won't be shedding too many tears for the corporate fat cats but I will be concerned at the potential loss of jobs for everyone else. We've been here before though and managed disruptive change creatively. We'll manage again.