Defining Ownership in a Digital Era: How Makers Are Navigating the Complexities of IP

psfk logoHaving just set foot in a Fab Lab (two in fact) for the first time last week, I am intrigued by how the same disruption (yes, that word again!) that visited the music and movie industries is now beginning to erupt within the industry of fabrication of physical goods.  In my opinion, the change which has come to the former industries has been positive, although I would imagine that it is so far incomplete and will see further transformation of business models, probably in the direction of ‘Culture As A Commons’, when it is realised that copyrights and IP in general do more harm than good to innovation and even ‘the bottom line’.

This article by PSFK Labs describes how those involved in ‘Maker Culture’ are trying to steer a path through the murky waters of IP and ensure that there is benefit for all concerned – my reservation with the model of only allowing designs to be printed once is that although it protects the right of the designer to earn value from their work, it does so by imposing an ‘artificial scarcity’ where none is really called for – ultimately I would prefer designs to be shared freely in a Commons approach, possibly in conjunction with something like the Peer Production Licence so that capitalist entities not contributing to the Commons have to pay IP rent, and thus ensuring a flow of value back to the creators of the designs.

The key phrase from the article seems to be ‘Within the world of digital design, it can be hard to define where ownership begins and ends‘ – this is surely one of the pressing dilemmas of our age and if we get it right we can ensure a future that is more abundant than what we have known in the recent past.


An emerging set of platforms and services are making it easier for inventors to navigate the complex landscape of copyright and bring their ideas to market.

Between 2003 and 2008, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed, threatened or settled more than 30,000 cases against individuals who used peer-to-peer (P2P) networks to share music. It was an unprecedented legal campaign designed to protect copyrights and intimidate into submission anyone who might be tempted to upload or download material without giving the industry its due.

And while music lovers and open-Internet advocates screamed, the RIAA argued that it was the only way to ensure that individual artists and their recording labels could survive. Since then, as society has become increasingly digitized, the balance of democratization and rights protection has become harder and harder to strike.

To see this struggle in action, look no further than the exploding industry around 3D printing and design marketplaces like Shapeways and Sculpteo. Catherine Jewell of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) wrote last year, “Ensuring that incentives and rewards are in place for those who invest in new ideas without stifling innovation and openness in the use of online designs will be a key challenge for IP policymakers going forward. Mechanisms that facilitate the licensing and legitimate sharing of design files will play a major role in meeting this challenge.”

The urgency of finding the right mechanisms is underscored by the fact that companies spent $13 billion last year dealing with assertions of copyright infringement. Fortunately for makers on both sides of the issue, there are a number of innovations emerging that will allow innovators to fully focus on their craft without having to worry about losing ownership of their work or infringing on the intellectual property of others.

We’ve called this raft of new tools ‘Gated IP’ and this week, we take a closer look at three examples of the trend.

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