The 3D printing revolution that has occurred over the past few years can be directly traced to some intrepid hackers wanting to bring a technology that was usually reserved for companies with large budgets down to the level where it was affordable for everyone. This then created a whole new industry of consumer level 3D printers which started out as kits that required a lot of construction and tinkering (I’m not just saying that either, I’ve been there) to today where there are dozens of printers available with the vast majority coming ready to print right out of the box. This commoditization of 3D printing has led to a lot of interesting and controversial situations, not least of which is Intellectual Ventures latest IP filing.
For the uninitiated Intellectual Ventures is essentially a giant patent portfolio company who makes their money by licensing out said patents. Primarily this is done through them filing lawsuits against companies who they find are infringing on their patents, essentially forcing them into a licensing arrangement with them. The term Patent Troll could not be more apt for any other company as whilst they might have a token research lab their mainstay of business is acquiring patents and then using them to bilk others for cash. Recently Intellectual Ventures announced one of their newer patents called Object Production Rights, something which seems eerily familiar.
The system they describe is essentially a plugin for 3D printer software which, upon receiving a file of an object that the user wants to print, contacts a server somewhere and verifies that this particular printer/person/software is allowed to print this object. Should they have the required access they’ll be able to print it, otherwise the software will just simply refuse to do so. If you think you’ve heard this before its basically Digital Rights Management directly translated into the 3D printing world and because of that it brings with it all the issues that plagued it in the digital world.
For starters DRM/OPR only hurts those who are using that particular product as thanks to the grass roots nature of the 3D printer movement most of the stuff that’s already available (and what will likely be available in the future) is done so free of charge. Realistically the only way that OPR would work would be with “genuine” model parts from manufacturers but the thing there is that there’s nothing stopping an intrepid user replicating that same part from a scan of a copy or simply designing one themselves. Whilst there might be some kind of copyright implications for direct scans (although I’m struggling to find anything concrete) the latter is not covered at all and is how the majority of 3D printed objects are created.
I’m sure that the end goal for this particular patent is that all 3D printer manufacturer’s will be required to implement this in their firmware/software suites and thus Intellectual Ventures can collect a tidy licensing sum on each 3D printer sold. Whilst I’m hopeful that this won’t come to pass even if it does it won’t be long before swaths of custom firmwares and third party software hits the market that does away with OPR, rendering the system moot once again. Of course you might then get a RIAA-esque outcry about how 3D printing is killing the manufacturing industry but just like the music industry such outcries are hollow when their profits are largely unaffected by the prevalence of piracy.
I believe that the 3D printing industry is poised well to resist OPR, at least at the consumer level. The explosion of this nascent industry is almost wholly due to its openness and fervent support from people giving their work away for free. Trying to work this kind of system in will be met with heavy resistance and the only entry point I can see for them would be at the higher end where there are much more juicy litigation targets. Still nothing is stopping those same high end printers from utilizing the freely available work of others, again rendering the OPR idea moot.
For over 20 years I have been a gamer. I can still remember fondly the days when my Dad first sat me down in front of our new computer and showed me how to fire up Captain Comic from the DOS prompt. I’ve then watched as the wonderful world of games grew from a hidden away world only for the socially inept of the world to the multi-billion dollar industry that it has become. So when the game companies who I’ve stuck with through thick and thin decide that the best way to combat piracy is by slapping DRM on something I feel a little hurt. It’s like an old friend telling you he can’t see you anymore because of his new girlfriend, you just can’t accept it.
I will admit that the majority of my gaming life was spent DRM free. Sure there were the license codes and some games requiring me to have the CD in the drive (which was easily defeated by spinning up something like Daemon Tools) but that was usually a one time thing, and it never really interfered with the normal operation of my machine or the gaming experience. In 2004 however I was greeted with my first ever in-your-face DRM, Steam. Back when it was first announced Steam was going to be a revolutionary way for developers to deliver games to consumers. At the time I was still outside an area that was capable of getting broadband Internet and this proved to be quite a problem for it. After spending about an hour installing Half Life 2 I was then greeted with having to create an account to play it. Fair enough I thought and plugged away at the sign up process. After this I was then greeted by Steam telling me that there was an update available. My attempts to stop it were futile and I could not shift the game into offline mode until it had updated. The result was me feeling cheated as I had paid good money for a hard copy so I could play it that day. Instead I was given a several hour delay on top of the install and sign up time. I didn’t trust steam for many years after that.
Another 4 years by before I would have my next run in with a DRM system. After years of hype I was excited to see Will Wright’s new creation Spore hit the shelves. I had been fooling around with the Creature Creator for a week or so before with my house mate and we were looking forward to creating and messing with our creations. Everything seemed to be fine until my housemates computer started having random issues, caused in part to SecuROM. I began to have issues as well after I began developing again, as SecuROM begins to throw a fit when debuggers are present. After spending $80 on a game and having it run rampant through my system I was a little miffed, and I haven’t installed the game since.
Just a few weeks ago I was intrigued to see a new game pop up on Steam, Aion. I’m a total sucker for eye candy in games and the initial once over I did of it looked promising. After searching around for a while I found out that it uses GameGuard as an anti-cheat system which in itself is not a bad idea (I come from the old days of Punkbuster, and I had no issue with them). However the behaviour of the program is squarely in root kit territory with it installing a device driver and remaining even after the game is uninstalled. The list of programs it messes with contains many programs that I use and are not intended in anyway to cheat, but if I choose to install this game they will either break or cause the game to crash.
It’s really sad for someone like me who has enough disposable income that a $50 game can come under a weekly “consumables” budget I have but I’ll stop dead in my tracks if they decide I need to be treated like a criminal in order to play their game. I’ve been eyeing it off Aion for a while and the promise that GameGuard breaks on Windows 7 (with a homegrown fix for it) has me leaning towards giving it a go. But had the Aion developers chosen not to include this software I would’ve already been a paying customer, and it’s sad that their sale to me is going to rely on using what amounts to beta software.
So game developers have a think about the market you’re delivering to. No longer are we the young gamers struggling to eek out a living (in fact the average age of gamers in Australia is 30), we’re mature adults who can afford to spend up on games. Treating us like criminals and cheats just costs you sales and does nothing to prevent either. It’s sad that the first thing I check when a new game is released is what DRM it uses not a game play video or similar.
And that folks is how you make a grown gamer cry.
The digital age that we live in has brought us something that we weren’t accustomed to before: desirable products that have no limits on production. All forms of digital media can be reproduced essentially for free, and this leads to their supply being apparently infinite. This doesn’t work well with traditional business models as the normal rules of supply and demand would dictate the price would drop to near nothing if this was the case. What this has led to is a constant arms race between those who wish to profit from the digital age and those that wish to exploit a near limitless resource for their own game. I am of course referring to the pirates, or more accurately copyright infringers.
The reasons that people pirate are as varied as they are numerous, but the common thread I see throughout most of them is that there is an almost zero cost and risk associated with pirating something. When the barrier to entry is so low that almost anyone can get on and get whatever computer software they want for free with very little risk of being caught the perceived value of the product drops dramatically. In essence these pirates view the digital media as being worth a lot less than what it is being sold for commercially, and the risks associated with illegally downloading copyrighted material are small enough to be written off as well.
Most of the mechanisms that have been used thus far to combat piracy have been blunt and ineffective. The most traditional form is a Digital Rights Management (DRM) system which attempts to regulate access to only those who have purchased a copy legally. In all my years of working in IT I have not seen one program that has managed to resist the efforts to break its DRM, with the record standing at a mere 2 weeks if memory serves me. Personally when I pay for a game or application that dares to throw more then the most basic DRM at me I do feel like I’m being treated like a criminal for doing the right thing, whilst the pirates get away without having to worry about it.
However, despite all this bellyaching there are a few glimmers of hope. Stardock made headlines late last year for releasing a Gamer’s Bill of Rights outlining what they believe to be 10 rules that all game development companies should adhere to. In essence it was all about improving the value of the product for the customer, I.E the ones who are actually paying for the software. Whilst there has been no solid research done thus far into how DRM systems affect sales (although historically any draconian DRM scheme is met with strong customer disatisfaction) it comes as common sense that if people percieve the value of a product higher when they get it for free then you’re doing something wrong.
“Altogether on console, the piracy is low,” Guillemot said. “On the PC the piracy is quite a lot. We are working on a tool that would allow us to decrease that on the PC starting next year and probably one game this year.”
Guillemot didn’t say what that solution would be, but it since he talked about it as if it were a new tool and not an existing form of digital rights management, like SecuRom, it stands to reason that it may be an internal solution.
He said that piracy on Nintendo’s DS is strong, though oddly not as bad on the DSi, and that the company has learned that they can reduce the impact of illegal copies of the game by including physical extras like figurines, with their titles.
This is exactly the way they should combat piracy. Improving the value of a store bought copy through things the pirates can’t get their hands on and duplicate is what will draw people away from the world of pirated software. History has shown that DRM is ineffective in preventing people from obtaining a product they want for free and recent forays into reducing the price (hence increasing perceived value) have worked to increase total sales.
With 2 of the big names starting to come around perhaps soon we’ll be rid of the DRM bugbear.