It won’t be long before people have a 3-D printer sitting at home alongside its old inkjet counterpart. These 3-D printers, some already costing lessthan a computer did in 1999, can print objects by spraying layers of plastic, metal or ceramics into shapes. People can download plans for an object, hit print, and a few minutes later have it in their hands.
Call it the Industrial Revolution 2.0. Not only will it change the nature of manufacturing, but it will further challenge our concept of ownership and copyright. Suppose you covet a lovely new mug at a friend’s house. So you snap a few pictures of it. Software renders those photos into designs that you use to print copies of the mug on your home 3-D printer.
“Copyright doesn’t necessarily protect useful things,” said Michael Weinberg, a senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge, a Washington digital advocacy group. “If an object is purely aesthetic it will be protected by copyright, but if the object does something, it is not the kind of thing that can be protected.”
When I posed my mug scenario to Mr. Weinberg, he responded: “If you took that mug and went to a pottery class and remade it, would you be asking me the same questions about breaking a copyright law? No.” Just because new tools arrive, like 3-D printers and digital files that make it easier to recreate an object, he said, it doesn’t mean people break the law when using them.
A recent research paper published by the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., titled “The Future of Open Fabrication,” says 3-D printing will be “manufacturing’s Big Bang.” as jobs in manufacturing, many overseas, and jobs shipping products around the globe are replaced by companies setting up 3-D fabrication labs in stores to print objects rather than ship them.
The disregard for copyright smoothes the way for this shift. Downloading music online prospered because it was quicker and easier to press a button than go to a store to buy a CD. Given the choice to download a mug, or deal with Ikea on a Saturday afternoon, which one do you think you would choose?