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Can 3D printing avoid a Napster moment?

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It’s inevitable that there is a clash coming over intellectual property rights in the 3D printing world. But just how violent will it be?

“3D printing today is like Napster and file sharing in 1999,” said James Malackowski, CEO of intellectual capital consulting firm Ocean Tomo. “You can imagine there is a road in the woods that diverges and people are going to have to make the choice which path they follow.”

Malackowski spoke on a panel today at the Inside 3D Printing conference in San Jose, where experts considered the best way to make 3D printable file sharing a safe and mainstream activity. Like music files, they can easily be pirated, stealing a designer of their chance to make money off their work. But unlike music files, 3D files are highly non-standardized, and there is rarely a guarantee to a consumer that a design they are considering buying is actually reliable and compatible with their printer.

There are many paths that could bring about standard IP practices in the industry, from strict government regulation to an industry trade organization to seeding habits among consumers that make them comfortable with paying for 3D objects.

Panelists agreed any government action would need to be educated and measured.

“I hope we will not have a Napster moment,” author and technology analyst Melba Kurman said. “I think Napster did leave a real bad taste in everyone’s mouth. It was an oversimplified and draconian reaction.”

Malackowski noted that unlike the film and music industries, 3D printing is not centralized in the U.S. Companies are global, which would make it more difficult for any one government to effectively regulate it.

3D printing marketplace Azavy co-founder Tyler Benster said 3D printed designs themselves also need to improve, which will increase trust and expand available designs. Instead of the huge marketplaces like Thingiverse, where designs are unregulated and potentially unprintable, consumers should be able to trust any design they choose will be compatible with their printer.

Benster said high quality designs within a highly useable interface could drive customers to pay for files. He named iTunes as an example; it is so easy to use that people don’t mind paying for music.

That trend will only happen if 3D printers hold up their end too. 3D streaming platform Fabulonia chief architect John Dogru said people and companies will feel comfortable selling 3D printable designs once 3D printers are totally reliable.

“I think it will happen naturally and I think it will come from a few industry leaders having a high quality printer that can work with a one-click print,” Dogru said.

14 Responses to “Can 3D printing avoid a Napster moment?”

  1. First Fashion then BioPrinting then consumer level, until resin printers become the norm 3d printing wont go mainstream, even with resin printing there are limitations to practical uses for homes. People love the technology but practicality of home printing is imperative to industry growth. There are already websites offering free designs. Thingiverse, Fabster, Ponoko. Designers should get paid for their designs but until there IS a market (demand) people shouldnt be surprised by the low sales in 3d print ready designs.

    We are at the dot matrix stage of 3d Printing which means it will be another 5+ years before this industry really starts to mature. Those who are rushing into this industry expecting quick windfalls will surely be disheartened. DONT judge 3d companies by their share price, judge them on their revenue. Yes we can print in titanium, yes we can print in 100+ materials but the practicality is for MOST industries, its still more expensive than traditional manufacturing methods.

    In short the industry has to learn to crawl before it can run a ultra marathon :)

    Regards Peter from
    Let 3d Printing be open source for as long as possible !

  2. An interesting market to look at if you want to get your head around how 3D printing might actually play out is high-end home and light commercial embroidery. You’ll find that there are lots of people engaged in it, no DRM above inexpensive entry-level ecosystems, lots of people selling designs, lots of people “borrowing” copies of designs others purchase, lots of people making “replica” designs of copyright material (Disney knock-off designs are very popular), a range of equipment, a range of formats.

    So basically all of the horrible problems identified in the article, and still, it’s a robust and growing community. Go figure.

  3. Hello,
    I believe there will always be free designs, and paid designs. There will not be a creativity limit in the exchange of designs in the future, but only added choices of being delivered a quality product with one click without fuss from a trusted party. There will be always those that need to protect ip and design secrets in prototyping use cases as well. There will always be those that copy and the trust associated with that is usually not to trust. Usually is the case, most people honor the creator for delivering a quality product or experience that is guarenteed. Trust is based on this statistical satisfaction. When will that level of consistent satisfactions be achieved in home 3d printers is just a matter of time. Stay tuned

  4. Jack Rivkin

    Designs and products that are created via 3-D printing will lead to more transactions in the grey economy. This stuff will not be free, but it will not all be a part of the formal economy. I touched on this briefly in a recent post on jobs, education and the grey economy:

  5. It will never have a napster moment since about 23 people will ever have a use for a home 3D printer and millions of people used napster. The only reason anyone cared about file sharing was because of the huge number of people doing it.

  6. My prediction is that the consumer printing market will not be as big or prevalent as many people expect. Instead, 3D printing will allow manufacturing design and production to become two separate industries. Design firms will receive orders (from either consumers or retailers), and will send those orders through large-scale industrial printing houses, which will probably also handle fulfillment. Think Amazon Fulfillment but where they also create the item.

    With this setup, the design files are only shared between the designer and the printer.

    There’s still a danger of piracy, especially with 3D scanners, but the quality of industrial prints will always be so much greater than that of smaller consumer printers, that most people will opt to purchase the item rather than print it themselves. Also, since printing houses will be located near the consumer, one- or same-day shipping will be very common.

  7. My prediction for the 3D printing industry is that the small, end-consumer-sized printers will not catch on as much as many analysts think. What 3D printing will do, however, is allow manufacturing design and manufacturing production to become completely separate for many types of manufactured goods. Design firms will receive orders, and send those orders to industrial printing houses, which will probably also handle fulfillment. Think Amazon fulfillment, except they also create the item.

    This way, the design is only shared between designer and printer, making piracy much more difficult.

    A complicating factor is 3D scanners, but industrial-sized printers will probably always have such a resolution advantage over consumer printers that most people will opt to buy the better quality prints rather than make on themselves.

  8. There is no clash they lost along time ago , wishful thinking doesn’t get you there. They can fight it all they want ,they still won’t get what they want.
    The social benefit of not allowing copyright when it comes to 3D printing is astronomical ,it’s “a moral obscenity” to even suggest that money should be made by selling designs.
    What is needed is to fight these people ,to crush them ASAP. We need open source to take the lead and not leave them any space to breathe.
    Access to culture and information has a significant social benefit but 3D printing can be so much more. And they want to deny humanity that huge step forward? It could save hundreds of millions of lives ,but hey lets not do that because we have to get fat and have money for hookers.