BBC Future

3D printing: A new dimension to faking it

  • Cottage industry
    In China, brand-name consumer tech such as iPods are copied brazenly; here they are known as "shanzhai", which translates as mountain village. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Bad Apple
    It's not just tech that gets copied in China – it's the stores as well. This unofficial Apple Store is in Chang'an, also known as Xian. (Copyright: Achim Hepp)
  • Rival designs
    Counterfeiters are getting more ambitious: Zaha Hadid's design for the new Wangjing Soho complex in Beijing has been pirated for a rival complex in Chonqing. (Copyright: Getty)
  • Red eye
    Fake tech is nothing new: soon after the revolutionary Leica camera was launched in the 1920s, the Soviets created unofficial copies, such as this Fed 2. (Copyright: Glen Edelson)
  • Bogus Boeing
    During World War II, US B-29 bombers which had attacked Japan were forced to land in the USSR, enabling the Soviet to make a copy, the Tupolev Tu-4. (Copyright: Pavel Adzhigildaev)
  • Licence to print money
    The 3D printer has made it easier than ever to create copies of products – and this highlights the fact that copying physical objects is not always illegal. (Copyright: SPL)
  • Suit shaped
    Shaped mannequins – with shirts sculpted onto the torso to display jackets – were the subject of an failed US law suit after the design was copied. (Copyright: Petteri Sulonen)
Thanks to 3D printers, budding counterfeiters could soon create parts or goods themselves. The problem for authorities is that copying physical objects is not always illegal.

Rolex watches, Burberry hats and other fake luxury goods are increasingly becoming small beer to ambitious counterfeiters. They are now thinking on a far grander scale – both in terms of size and the tools for the job.

According to Der Spiegel, a “fake” copy of a Beijing office and retail development designed by London-based architect Zaha Hadid is already being built 900 miles (1,500km) away in Chongqing. In Guandong province, also in China, builders are reportedly working on an unauthorised replica of the Austrian village of Hallstat, a UNESCO World Heritage site. And on a smaller scale, pirated petrol stations are not unheard of in eastern Europe, including fake Shell stations in Russia, and an entire fake BP station, complete with a petrol tanker decked out in BP livery, in Bulgaria.

Ruth Orchard, director general of the London-based Anti-Counterfeiting Group points the finger of blame at the internet. "The sheer number of counterfeit goods is going up, because people can now order them online and they can be sent from the other side of the world," she said. "In the past we would see a large consignment that would be shipped, and the contents sold on market stalls. But thanks to the internet counterfeiters can send out individual items. It sounds low key, but it is actually far more difficult to detect."

The fear is that budding counterfeiters could soon create the parts themselves. That's because it will be possible to make your own copies using a 3D printer – either from pirated blueprints, or from digital files containing 3D scanned images of the object in question. The internet will certainly make accessing these files straightforward: The Pirate Bay, a website that makes it easy to access pirated music and movies, has already added a section called Physibles, where people can share files for printing objects.

It's important to remember that copying physical objects is not always illegal. While songs, movies and literary works are automatically protected by copyright, functional objects like tables or chairs don't have any automatic protection, according to Michael Weinberg, a staff attorney at Public Knowledge, a Washington, DC-based non-profit public interest group involved in intellectual property law. "Patents can be used to protect useful pieces of engineering or sciencey things, but you have to apply for a patent, and it only lasts for twenty years,” he says. “But the world is full of things that are not protected in any way, so anyone can make a direct copy."

Weinberg published a white paper last week that attempts to point out what is and isn't protected by copyright. For instance, there is the issue of severability, where the artistic features of an object can be separated from its functional features. A chair may not be covered by copyright, but the design on the seat cushion could be, so the design is removed from the chair and protected by copyright.

It's likely that laws relating to intellectual property will have to be updated or clarified in the future, to take in to account the capabilities of 3D printing technology, Weinberg believes. "For example, at the moment you don't have any intellectual property rights over your body parts," he said. That may become increasingly relevant, because a number of projects around the world are looking at 3D printing using biological matter, to produce anything from artificial raw meat to human organs. "If you had a fantastic heart, what happens if it gets scanned in hospital, and then someone uses that scan to copy your heart and then use a 3D printer to make a replica and sell it for a profit? At the moment there is no case law on that."

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.

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