California is always ahead of the curve when it comes to rolling out new technology, but the laws that protect associated intellectual property often lag behind. That seems to be something that the state will try to remedy in the case of 3D printing, as copyright is considered and factored into new legislation around even its early uses.
The bill in this case, AB-37, refers only to reminders about intellectual property infringement in California’s public libraries but it could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to one of the hottest – and most valuable – emergent technologies.
3D printing has advanced rapidly in recent years, moving from large and bulky industrial machinery to versions of printers that can be used at home. Though price points closer to the four-figure mark continue to keep anyone but hardcore enthusiasts and early adopters from the door, the technology is showing signs of moving from the warehouse to the showroom.
In New York City, for example, retail stores are beginning to pop up, as brands like Makerbot and iMakr vie for position in the minds of every day consumers. For now they focus more on demonstrations and trinkets than practical products that mainstream users would want to buy. But with use cases being made, heavy experimentation underway, and investors lining up for a piece of the action, 3D printing is the next big thing for many and opens up a whole new avenue of creative expression. The so-called “Maker Movement” is real, and it will require support from the intellectual property laws that underpin creativity in the U.S. and around the world.
For an industry that Canalys estimates will be worth $16.2 billion in the next three years, it’s easy to see why creators and legislators want to avoid being burned in the same way that music and movie makers were as digital file-sharing emerged at the turn of the century.
Without having a precedent for the digital revolution – and with entertainment market revenues riding high at the time – the creative industries saw their product shift quickly and get short-circuited by the rapid onset of unlicensed P2P sites like Napster and Kazaa. Creators have struggled to catch up to piracy sites ever since, and copyright law has had similar trouble keeping pace with the pirates. Makers with a stake in the development of 3D printing have every reason to ensure that their rights are protected from day one.
There are also safety considerations, something that never had to be factored into the early days of digital piracy. The potential for 3D printing of guns hit the headlines last year, for example, and applications in healthcare or personal use products hold their own legal ramifications when digital designs become physical products.
The size and scope of crafting laws around the 3D printing industry is huge, yet provides a microcosm of the challenges that face any attempts to regulate and protect creativity. The same tired arguments of stifling innovation and restricting access are wheeled out to defend any and all uses of the new technology, whether made by unrealistic ideologues or the more insidious lobbying groups that regularly attempt to undermine copyright law.
We have an opportunity at this early stage in the life of 3D printing technology to set out a stall that says intellectual property will be the basis of a vibrant marketplace and creative rights will be respected. Far from restricting the potential for this exciting new technology, the firm foundation of copyright will set makers free to pursue their ideas without fear of having their hard work and creative expression pulled from underneath them.