Jun 042012
 

St Thompson Techlaw fThe 3d printer promises to become “a photocopier of stuff,” and creative people have already begun to use them for fun as well as practical ends.

But will vending machines that fabricate homemade Legos or Warhammer figurines be the next target of filesharing lawsuits? It’s great to be able to download a Herman Miller Aero chair, but what if you only can afford the trial version, and you’re sitting on it when it crumbles into polymer dust 30 days later?

3-D Printing’s Legal Morass

Last winter, Thomas Valenty bought a MakerBot — an inexpensive 3-D printer that lets you quickly create plastic objects. His brother had some Imperial Guards from the tabletop game Warhammer, so Valenty decided to design a couple of his own Warhammer-style figurines: a two-legged war mecha and a tank.

He tweaked the designs for a week until he was happy. “I put a lot of work into them,” he says. Then he posted the files for free downloading on Thingiverse, a site that lets you share instructions for printing 3-D objects. Soon other fans were outputting their own copies.

Until the lawyers showed up.

Games Workshop, the UK-based firm that makes Warhammer, noticed Valenty’s work and sent Thingiverse a takedown notice, citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Thingiverse removed the files, and Valenty suddenly became an unwilling combatant in the next digital war: the fight over copying physical objects….

Companies now offer 3-D printers for just over $1,000, and prices are dropping rapidly. Observers predict that in a few years we’ll see printers that integrate scanning capability — so your kid can toss in a Warhammer figurine, hit Copy, and get a new one. The machine will become a photocopier of stuff.

This has all the makings of an epic and surreal legal battle. You thought Hollywood and record labels were powerful lobbyists, crushing Napster and suing file-sharers? Wait until you see what the manufacturing industry can do. The American Chamber of Commerce is the single largest lobbyist on Capitol Hill, spending $60 million a year….

But there’s one big difference in this clash: The legal situation might actually favor the amateurs.

That’s because, as [Public Knowledge's Michael] Weinberg points out, disputes over copies of physical objects are often fought using patent law, which is far less strict than copyright. For example, patents last only 20 years, which means many cool everyday objects (Lego bricks!) are long out of patent. What’s more, patent law generally governs only a complete assembled product, so creating replacement parts — a thriving pastime among hobbyists — is probably legal.

What 3-D printing hobbyists mostly have to watch out for, Weinberg argues, is copying artistic patterns or designs on an object. That violates copyright. But if you stick to reproducing or modeling the basic physical nature of something — particularly if you’re rejiggering a physical concept into a new form — you’re probably safe….

So really, the longer-term danger here is that manufacturers will decide the laws aren’t powerful enough. Once kids start merrily copying toys, manufacturers will push to hobble 3-D printing with laws similar to the Stop Online Piracy Act. “You’ll have people going to Washington and saying we need new rights,” Weinberg frets. Imagine laws that keep 3-D printers from outputting anything but objects “authorized” by megacorporations — DRM for the physical world.

Until that day, creative folks are already using 3d printers to hack the physical world. Renowned new media artist Golan Levin uses a 3d printer to make his son’s toys play nice together.

How A Geek Dad And His 3D Printer Aim To Liberate Legos

Last year Golan Levin’s son decided to build a car. Aside from the minor inconvenience of being 4 years old, the younger Levin faced an engineering challenge. His Tinkertoys, which he wanted to use for the vehicle’s frame, wouldn’t attach to his K’Nex, the pieces he wanted to use for the wheels.

It took his father, an artist, hacker and professor at Carnegie Mellon, a year to solve that problem. In the process he cracked open a much larger one: In an age when anyone can share, download and create not just digital files but also physical things, thanks to the proliferation of cheap 3-D printers, are companies at risk of losing control of the objects they sell?

In March Levin and his former ­student Shawn Sims released a set of digital blueprints that a 3-D printer can use to create more than 45 plastic objects, each of which provides the missing interface between pieces from toy construction sets. They call it the Free Universal Construction Kit.

Don’t have your own printer? Stop by the print-o-mat.

Vending Machine That Prints in 3-D

The DreamVendor is the brainchild of Dr. Chris Williams, Director of Virginia Tech’s DREAMS Lab, and student Amy Elliot, who led the design. “We wanted an experience where someone could walk up and use a 3-D printer without having to worry about anything besides loading a file and selecting ‘Print,’” says Williams.

To use it, you insert an SD card containing a physible’s data file. Then the printer goes to work fabricating your design. It’s not exactly like ordering a Diet Coke — 3-D printers work at a plodding pace — but it’s a lot quicker than sending your file off to a web service and waiting for them to send your object back through the mail.

Photo illustration: Andrew B. Myers