Making new Parts: The Creation of 3 Dimensional Printers, Digital Fabrication and Patent Rights

So I was recently listening to CBC Radio’s Spark. “Spark” is an interesting show because it looks at the intersection of technology, people and society. Or put differently, the show is devoted to exploring the relationship that people have to technology and how that relationship changes society. For a Geek like me, this is good stuff. By necessity, the show talks about today’s technology, yesterdays’ tech and what we could possible see tomorrow.

Last week’s show had a number of topics but the one which seized my imagination was a conversation about Robots, Three Dimensional Printers and Digital Fabrication. For those who do not know, techies have been experimenting with the idea of making products without forms or moulds. In the Geek World, there have been experiments with “printing” various subjects including statutes and shoes. Manufacturers love the idea because they could have reduced costs. Think about it, if I could create shoes in a store with a three dimensional printer, Nike or Adidas would not have to hire staff in a third world country. Nor would either company have to worry about energy costs, transportation costs, storage costs, outsourcing production or the scandals that come from outsourcing production. It would bring just in time manufacturing to a new level; for the only thing that a shoe manufacturer would have to worry about is branding and design – a far cry from today’s business model.

Customers, on the other hand, would love the customization of a product. Instead of having too choose between the few colours which are available, one could have a fuchsia or orange shoe. For that matter, one could have a multicolour shoe. Nor would one have to wait for a product to be shipped to them from some far off place. Once the file was made available from Nike or Adidas, your own personal tailor or cobbler would be able to create a perfectly personalized suit or a shoe. In the case of sci-fi collectables, 3D printing means the creation of unique poses for particular characters. For example, I have heard that one can buy a personalized Yoda. Or put differently, if one uses forms or moulds to create an object, a company has to ensure that there is a market for a particular character in a particular pose. With the advent of 3D printing though, one can create small quantities of customizable items for little or no increase in cost.

As we speak, the Geeks of the world are creating ways to do this. Let us take 100kGarages.com. 100kGarages.com “is a place for people who have designs, or just ideas for things they want to make, to connect with digital fabricators (“Fabbers”) who can help make these ideas become real. Our participating Fabbers work with 2-D or 3-D digital fabrication tools to cut, machine, drill, sculpt, or “print” in 3-D. Their “matchmaking” service can help you find someone to make your dreams come true.

I started to think about the possibilities of this and was amazed. Until, I heard the story of an industrial designer. He had purchased a stroller and a small part on it broke. Now, he phoned the company and found that it would take them a long time to get the new part to him. Furthermore, it was going to be a very expensive little part. So this Industrial Designer turned to his machines. With a little work, he was able to make the offending part.

Now, here comes the problem in my mind, how many Intellectual Property (IP) laws did he break? As I own a stroller and a baby car seat, I know that most of these objects have Patent Numbers printed on them. Presumably that is because many of their inner workings are protected by various intellectual Property Laws. Trademark Law could have been broken; or Patents could have been ignored.

If one thinks about it, one will find that the example provided is not exceptional. Most car parts depend on patents. So do most computer parts, TV parts and humidifiers. From furniture to appliances, from pens to printers, the patenting of physical products has been more important to manufacturers for 100 years than any other industry. This includes the music industry or the arts community. Therefore, one could argue that increasingly, our society is going to be working in a legal vacuum.  Or put differently, how will we protect Physical Intellectual Property (IP) rights in this new digital work? Like the IP fights over music and movies, we are slowly walking into a world where it might be possible to recreate an IKEA table, without paying IKEA for that right. Or how about buying a Dyson Vacuum Cleaner that is just a counterfeit knock off. Our society is entering a time, where it will be hard to protect the IP that was created.

It is funny that the Conservatives have not recognized this. Recent legislation passed Tony Clement, in fact, undid the “Tax Based Model” for a “Rights Based Model”. Or put differently, in 1993, under the Chretien Government, Parliament passed legislation to “tax” blank and recordable audio and visual media like CDs, DVDs, VCR and Audio Tapes. The revenue from the sale of those media would be then distributed to Music, Film and TV rights holders.

Since the election of the Harper Government in 2006, Ministers like Tony Clement have been pushing for a different model which resembles the US approach to IP protection: A Rights Based Model. Therefore, among other things, Rights Holders can now sue to protect their copywritten material. As noted in previous blogs, a Rights Based Approach is not much more effective than a Tax Based Model. For, if one looks at the revenue base of the International Music Industry, large amounts of money were lost under both systems. In fact, it was not until Apple developed its iPod and iTunes Platform that things turned around. Or put in another way, Subscription Services – either satellite or internet based – did not solve the illegal downloading problem.  Neither did software locks. In fact, Sony BMG CD copy protection rootkit scandal had to pay substainal monetary penalties because some of their locks deleted and destroyed data. Nor did the development of highly punitive criminal and civil penalties help the situation. The only thing that had an effect on the illegal downloading dilemma was the development of a strong, cheap and effective economic model.

Therefore, the upcoming development of 3D printing will lead to the re-examination of Intellectual Property yet again. Simply put, this is the time to call for a more sensible IP system: A system that protects inventors of Intellectual Property, while allowing other developers, customers and stakeholders to us that same Intellectual Property.

From my point of view, stakeholders have two choices. The first would be to record their development costs. They could be registered by a Government Agency, by not for Profit Recording System (similar to Stock Markets) or it could be recorded by companies themselves. Either way, these developers of technology could demand be granted a fee-per-use, until they recoup their entire cost. That fee would be non-negotiable and the Owner of the Intellectual Property in question would be required to make the IP in question available to all.

The Second Choice could be the public ownership of Intellectual Property. As noted in other posts, before Public Ownership could mean the creation of a Crown Corporation, or it could mean contracting out the service. Either way, I am proposing a huge public policy change. However, this would not be the first time such a change was made.

The Americans, for example, took a long time to come into line with British and International Copyright Standards. While it took the British nearly 30 years of trials and tribulation before passing Queen Anne’s Law- the forerunner to the modern form of Copyright protection and the first successful attempt at IP regulation. As we move into a digital world, Stakeholders, companies and players want to have a modern system that works. They are prepared for changes. The question is can governments be brave enough to make the necessary changes. Or put differently are government’s brave enough to “overturn the present apple cart”. To date this has not been the case, but maybe governments’ will change their attitude sometime soon.

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