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Summary:

It’s becoming ever easier to copy and share not just computer files but physical objects too. An Economist article reports that the technology could inaugurate a technological revolution — but also give rise to massive new piracy problems.

Pirate

An emerging breed of machines lets us “print” a real-life object, like a toy or a tiara, in the same way we can print a document at our desk. The technology could inaugurate a new era of manufacturing but is also striking fear into the hearts of brand owners.

In a must-read story, the Economist explains how cheap 3-D printers could one day let knock-off artists crank out shoes, gadgets, watches and any type of prized design. While counterfeiting is already wide-spread, it could increase dramatically with the machines:

But while the [traditional] pirates’ labour rates and material costs may be far lower, the tools they use to make fakes are essentially the same as those used by the original manufacturers. Equipment costs alone have therefore limited the spread of the counterfeiting industry. But give every sweatshop around the world a cheap 3D printer coupled to a laser scanner, and pirated goods could well proliferate.

My colleague, Janko Roettgers, has reported that file-sharing platforms already aspire to be exchanges for 3-D goods (see “The Pirate Bay now lets you download physical objects“). In other words, kids may one day go from swapping not just MP3s on the internet but iPods too.

The Economist notes that 3D printing is likely to touch off a new intellectual property debate between those who want to label the devices “piracy machines” and those who see them as a technological revolution like the advent of personal computing.

It’s early days yet and, for now, the objects being replicated are dumb pieces of plastic. This means that, in the immediate future, it may only be firms like Lego or Oakley (not Apple or Porsche) that may have to worry.

But if the “print-me-anything” devices take off as predicted, we will eventually be able to copy most things around us. When that happens,  the debates over copyright and the DMCA will look like a tea party.

For a look at how New York company Shapeways has already “printed” more than one million objects, see: The Future will be printed in 3D

(Image by meunierd via Shutterstock)

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  1. Why can’t they just be honest and sell their labour. Why must they be so dishonest using coercion to strip property rights of their own customers. It’s so despicable.

  2. An iPod? Really? Hyperbole much? The string of elements &/or materials needed to pull that off approaches Star Trek replicator class complexity. A plastic toy? Already 3-D copied. A wrench? Already done with a more advanced 3-D copier. As complex a tool as a gun has already been done, fully functioning. The rare earth elements needed to produce the screen of the iPad or even iPod is too expensive & even when the expense would be off-set by the profit, the process of having available at the correct time and also at the same time all at once during the 3-D printing process is impossible.

  3. i am still waiting for a personal 3d printer..

  4. IP is obsolete, copyright is obsolete, ownership is obsolete. We need to embrace the evolution toward a resource-based economy of sharing, cooperation, iteration, and evolution. We are not just a collection of individuals, we are a collaborative super-brain when given the chance. Personal profit will cease to make sense in the near future.

  5. i would print a fully functional 3d printer…

  6. Out of everything i could think to print, I can’t believe I never thought about Legos. In fact, I’m almost tempted to get a 3D printer just to make Legos because it seems all Legos are specialized and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find just standard, plain blocks.

  7. Yes it will.. see not that complicated a question why the blog?

  8. Piracy will always exist. The shame is that the true potential of these machines is the enabling of average joes developing new items. Using these to pirate is kind of a waste…

  9. If it was more profitable to produce copies by 3D printing than traditional methods, it would also be more profitable to produce the ORIGINALS that way. When this happens, we will have bigger problems than piracy, such as the total reorganization of our economic system.

  10. we might be able to copy things, but they will probably be out of low quality material, or else you end up paying the amount of what the actual item will cost anyway. if that will really happen then its actually a good thing because it brings 1 very positive change to the entire business: companies are going to make things out of good quality for the mainstream!

    i really hate when buying anything for whatever it might be and it turn out to be a shitty made plastic piece of sh*t that falls appart within 1 year just so you have to rebuy it, or worse, buy something new that is not equal to what you actually bought.

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