Will 3-D printing be hampered by DRM?

According to MIT Technology Review (Nathan Myhrvold’s Cunning Plan to Prevent 3-D Printer Piracy) something akin to copyright may be in the future of 3-D printing.

Replicator: MakerBot’s new 3-D printer

Replicator: MakerBot’s new 3-D printer (Technology Review)

Nathan Myhrvold is the former CTO of Microsoft and a great lover of patents. He adores their ability to bring in financial gains by going after other people’s patent violations. Some even call him a patent troll, suggesting he does that professionally. Buying or otherwise obtaining patents with a view of taking “violators” to court and making them pay.

Technology Review says Myhrvold, through his ‘Intellectual Ventures’ company, has taken out a patent for a system to digitally sign a file that specifies how to print a three-dimensional physical object. “The patent basically covers the idea of digital rights management, or DRM, for 3-D printers.”

While the article is rather neutral, the comments explore both sides of the coin, and many of them discuss the likelihood of some control scheme like this succeeding or not. Technically, it isn’t difficult to create a file for a 3-D object from scratch, or even to scan an existing object to then print it.

Eric James comments:
“First the patent is way to broad and obvious; but a lot of companies will try to make 3D Printer companies build this type of DRM right into the product just the same. Companies need to think outside of the box with 3D Printing; they need to start investing and selling the raw materials required to build products in the home and encourage the free sharing of designs. The future money is the supply of raw materials and/or the machines used to convert, disassemble and reuse materials extracted from our waste. Don’t kill the technology because a companies cannot figure out how or want to continue the current money making business models.”

sswaner, another one of the commenters, puts it succinctly:
“The title is misleading. Myhrvold is not trying to prevent piracy, he has made a cunning play to profit off of companies that try to prevent piracy. For example, if Disney wanted to sell models of toys for users to create on their 3d printers, it is reasonable they would want to protect them from unlimited use. They will come up with a protection scheme and then Myhrvold will sue them for license fees. If Myhrvold does nothing more than wait until someone else proposes a usable pattern protection plan it confirms that he is nothing but a patent troll.”

randcraw agrees and adds:
“I see this patent as making it *harder* to protect IP and thus less likely. Patenting a device which validates the legality of a design will impede the design expression, not enable it. A great deal of further development is needed in 3D printing before it’s commercially feasible, especially in developing all the the logistical infrastructure that will place the technology in the mainstream of manufacturing. Introducing a gatekeeper so soon can only obstruct the R&D yet to be done, especially since a patent as grand and fuzzy as this one that’s little more than a house of cards could never be realized in practice. It’s a like trying to patent e-tail retail back in 1993 — just a wee bit premature.

As we do now, the time to enforce copyright is when a product is sold, not when it’s made. Soon we’ll be investigating miners for whether the output from their smelter might one day infringe on any material in any product made by anyone.”

The EFF and ‘prior art’

As Digital Trends reports, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is concerned that this patent and its application could stifle creativity and impede sharing and worse, that it could impede development of what arguably is one of the most exciting sectors of the distributed manufacturing paradigm that the maker movement stands for. So the EFF calls for people to help sink the patent, the torpedo being what’s known as “prior art”, instances of (patented) technology that pre-date the patent and that do much the same thing. Prior art invalidates a patent, as patents have to be new inventions, not copies of something already in existence.

Here is the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s call for your help in neutralizing this patent:

Join EFF’s Efforts to Keep 3D Printing Open

To get involved with the search…

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