Additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D Printing, has long been relegated to the manufacturing industry as a method of rapid prototyping. More recently though, advances in technology and enthusiasm from the open-source and do-it-yourself crowds have catapulted 3D Printers into the mainstream. Aiming to make them mass-market items, companies like Makerbot produce desktop-sized printers that can be had for a few thousand dollars. The rise in ubiquity of these machines has also led to a rise in concern over copying and distribution of copyrighted works. Never before has the common consumer been able to so easily replicate such a wide variety of possibly copyrighted designs.
The website www.thingiverse.com allows 3D Printing hobbyists to share computer files containing user generated designs. In just a few minutes, users can download and begin printing a startlingly convincing copy of the Elder Wand from the Harry Potter Movies, or even Captain America’s Shield – both being examples of movie props originally conceived of by artists, copyrights to which now belong to movie studios. Parents may soon be questioning spending tens of dollars on a Transformers action figure for children when one can be printed for pennies.
Now the manufacturing industry is facing the same issues that Hollywood and the music industry have been battling since the advent of peer-to-peer networking. It also appears as though the manufacturing industry is utilizing the same tactics as well. Thingiverse received its first Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) Takedown Notice in 2011 from a company called Games Workshop over an allegedly infringing action figure and now routinely receives and issues notices to alleged infringers.
Individual enforcement of copyrights however, as the music industry knows all too well, is not very cost effective. It is also time consuming and leads to something of a legal ‘whack-a-mole’—squashing one infringer only leads to finding more. Furthermore DMCA suits have proven ineffective at curbing individual behavior even in the face of draconian statutory damages.
The American manufacturing industry does have a card up its sleeve that neither Hollywood nor the music industry had: sheer lobbying power. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently became the first organization to report lobbying expenditures over $1 Billion since 1998. To put that in perspective, General Electric, the second place winner, reported just under $300 million in the same period. Perhaps once the sleeping giant wakes it will ask Congress to provide more responsive enforcement procedures than take-down notices. One possibility on the horizon is a digital rights management scheme wherein 3D Printers are programmed to check for licensing before printing objects. Surely though, this would lead to backlash from the hobbyists.