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.