Can 3D printing avoid a Napster moment?

A 3D printed puzzle designed by Frans de Vreugd and printed by George Miller. It is available commercially. Photo by Signe Brewster

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.

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