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3D(RM): Is Additive Manufacturing Going the Way of the Recording Industry?


Patent 8,286,236 – a patent recently issued for a manufacturing control system. 

In short, per the US Patent and Trademark Office: “Methods and systems for a manufacturing control system include but are not limited to identifying at least one object data file configured to produce an object by a manufacturing machine; confirming that an authorization code is associated with the object data file, the authorization code configured to be received by the manufacturing machine, the manufacturing machine adapted to receive the authorization code; and enabling the manufacturing machine to interface with the object data file only if the authorization code meets one or more predetermined conditions.”  

Still with me?  Want to know what that means in English?   The patent basically covers the idea of digital rights management, or DRM, for 3-D printers. As with e-books that won’t open unless you pay Barnes & Noble and use its Nook reader, with this technology your printer wouldn’t print unless you’ve paid up.

“You load a file into your printer, then your printer checks to make sure it has the rights to make the object, to make it out of what material, how many times, and so on,” says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at the nonprofit Public Knowledge, who reviewed the patent at the request of Technology Review, published by MIT. “It’s a very broad patent.”

The patent isn’t limited to 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. It also covers using digital files in extrusion, ejection, stamping, die casting, printing, painting, and tattooing and with materials that include “skin, textiles, edible substances, paper, and silicon printing.”

“This is an attempt to assert ownership over DRM for 3-D printing. It’s ‘Let’s use DRM to stop unauthorized copying of things’,” says Weinberg, author of It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw It Up, a 2010 white paper on how intellectual-property rights could harm the development of 3-D printing.  But there’s a big caveat to all this, says Weinberg: “Nothing says manufacturers have to use DRM.”

The entertainment industry including music, book, and movies have all looked at DRM as a way to protect their intellectual property.  Results have been mixed. Apple’s iTunes dropped DRM for music in 2009 after consumers objected to not being able to play the music on non-Apple devices.  However, Apple still uses DRM for movies, as do DVD manufacturers, to prevent pirated films playing on your home DVD player.

The patent, granted on  October 9, 2012 to Intellectual Ventures of Bellevue, Washington, lends a 3D printer the ability to assess whether a computer design file it's reading has an authorization code included  that will allow access for printing. If it does not, the machine simply will not print, regardless of the object.   So who is Intellectual Ventures?  A 3D printer manufacturer?  Well, no.   Depending on your perspective,  Intellectual Ventures is either the biggest, most aggressive patent “troll” that ever existed or an innovative company that helps inventors protect their intellectual property and get return on their investment.

The issue is who is answering the question?  Founded in 2000 by Microsoft alumni Nathan Myhrvold and Edward Jung, Intellectual Ventures has -- through $5 billion in investment funds and its own investment and intelligence efforts -- collected nearly 70,000 "intellectual assets" on technologies ranging from nuclear power to camera lenses. It currently controls about 40,000 intellectual assets.

In the process, Intellectual Ventures has gained a questionable reputation among new entrepreneurs and large companies alike.   The threat, to some, is that if you have a new, innovative way of doing business, usually for an existing product or process, it is likely that Intellectual Ventures will have a patent for that.  Then you will have to expend time and effort to defend your ideas against their existing patents or pay a licensing fee to use it.    The other side of the business is more of a benevolent intellectual think tank, where folks with great ideas collaborate to solve problems effecting large parts of the population.  

But, back to the patent.  As with any technology, protecting intellectual property including 3D designs is an important business concern.   While no 3D printer manufacturer has adopted these digital rights management, existing legal agreements including the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement exist to establish international standards for intellectual property rights protection and enforcement.  Expect lawyers to start looking at this in regard to this type of manufacturing.

When 3D printing really takes off – and believe me, it will – our lives are likely to change in a pretty fundamental way; even more fundamentally than when a product like the microwave oven became commonplace in the home. Just think about it. Not too far off will be a day when an average family could expect to have an additive device in the house, happily printing off forks and candelsticks and screwdrivers. Having a party and need a giant bowl? Print it. Break your car key trying to use it to open a cardboard box? Print a replacement.

The scope of application for these devices is limited right now by the still-maturing technology, but that technology is maturing at a shocking rate. Does additive manufacturing need digital rights management? Opponents of such measures argue – not without evidence – that DRM has done little to curb piracy in the music, movie, and software industries. It certainly hasn’t resulted in the price reductions its proponents assured customers would soon appear. On the other hand, theft is theft, even in the digital age, and it’s not unreasonable for innovators to protect their own intellectual property. Your own opinion may come down to whether you perceive a difference between an innovator protecting their invention and a incorporated patent predator buying up concepts and then suing those who use them.

Expect challenges to the patent to emerge.  The new patent extends rights management beyond 3D printing to much older manufacturing techniques including computer-controlled milling, extrusion, die casting and stamping.    Back in 2002, museums were looking at how to protect sculptures and other 3D art objects from printer piracy and they looked at DRM as a way to do so.   So there is some doubt that the patent can claim novelty – a very important part of determining whether any patent is valid and enforceable. 

So, for now you are safe to go to the MakerBot store in Manhattan (or on-line) and pick up Replicator 2 desktop printer.  The online store has several thousand designs for downloading.  And they are still free – for now.   

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