Repeat and remix
One way of fighting the use of 3D printers for counterfeiting may be to introduce some form of copy control, similar to the digital rights management (DRM) systems that are applied to some music files, according to Bruce Bradshaw, a director of 3D printer maker Stratasys. "Much like the music industry has created mechanisms to protect the intellectual property of artists, we may see a day where designers and engineers are able to incorporate anti-piracy codes into digital design files, preventing them from being reproduced without proper credentials," he said.
In fact a patent for just such a system has already been granted in the US.
But Weinberg believes implementing copy controls on 3D printers would be a folly. The music industry has moved away from the practice of embedding DRM into music files, he says, and it is now concentrating on making it easy for consumers to buy digital music files online, as well as looking at ways to profit from merchandising and live performances.
"I hope that instead of being worried about 3D printing, manufacturers will follow the music industry by thinking about how they can benefit from 3D printing," said Weinberg. "If I was a manufacturer I would make a store that sells files that people can download and use to make my products on 3D printers. People who are interested enough in my product to make their own copies are fans, so I would nourish them, not try to sue them. "
Finnish mobile phone manufacturer Nokia recently announced that it would embrace this sort of approach. In a blog post published in mid-January, John Kneeland said that as well as selling coloured plastic cases for its Lumia 820 phone, the company plans to make it as easy as possible for people to copy Nokia's designs and make their own. "We are going to release 3D templates, case specs, recommended materials and best practices – everything someone versed in 3D printing needs to print their own custom Lumia 820 case," said Kneeland, a Community & Developer Marketing Manager at Nokia.
He hinted on the blog that fans of the company's phones might be able to produce their own handsets in the future. "We could sell some kind of phone template, and entrepreneurs the world over could build a local business on building phones precisely tailored to the needs of his or her local community. You want a waterproof, glow-in-the-dark phone with a bottle-opener and a solar charger? Someone can build it for you – or you can print it yourself."
A phone-with-a-bottle opener may sound fanciful, but it may not be as unlikely as it seems at first glance. "The ability to use techniques like 3D printing to carry out "remixing" is one of the things I am most excited about for the future," said Weinberg. He points out that in the United States there is a rich culture of remixing music and videos, but the source material is always protected by copyright – which limits how easy it is to distribute or sell these remixes. "There is a huge creative impulse, and in the physical world there are not the same limitations. So in the future with 3D printing what I hope we will see are some crazy remixes."
So why stop at a phone-with-a-bottle opener? What about a golf club that works as a phone? Or perhaps a spoon that tells the time? We'll just have to wait and see what the "physical mix-masters" and "object jockeys" of tomorrow can come up with.