Many of us spend an inordinate amount of time keeping up with as many tech news stories as possible. While many technology-oriented stories are quite optimistic, the reader can often find himself depressed when the topic turns to patents. While the trend slowed a bit in the latter half of 2012, there is no doubt that patents are now viewed more as a bargaining chip or a weapon than as a safeguard to promote innovation. For those of us who have been blessed to work in the 3D imaging field, there have been relatively few patent issues to impede our progress. However, as the 3D printer creates the final step in our digital lifecycle I fear we are in for a rude welcoming to the ongoing patent wars.
As was mentioned in Justin’s blog of last February, the Pirate Bay had listed “Physibles” as an item to be swapped alongside mp3’s and movies. Surely this was a sign that the lawyers would be close behind! But then news came in November that the wildly successful Kickstarter was being sued by 3D Systems for promoting the funding of the Form 1 3D printer. 3D Systems claims that it patented the method of stereolithography used by Formlabs. Silly me, I though the first 3D printing lawsuits would be about the objects printed; it never occurred to me that it would start before the printers were actually widely and affordably available!
I firmly believe that 3D printers will fundamentally change the way we approach manufacturing, so it’s no surprise that we are going to have a fight about it. Every time a disruptive technology emerges, someone who is currently making a lot of money will find themselves making less. None of us enjoys a reduction in value.
…which brings me to the US Congress. For those of you outside of the US, the current hot topic for our government is gun control. For the purposes of this blog, my personal opinions about this are irrelevant. But, given the oncoming abilities of 3D printers, the opinions of congressional lawmakers may be irrelevant as well. The Wiki Weapon has been on our radar since the 3D printer they were leasing was taken back when Stratasys learned that they were using it to print guns. Apparently, though, they found another 3D printer somewhere, as their site posted a video not long ago of an AR-15 using a high-capacity magazine that was created using a 3D printer. They have already posted the CAD files for anyone to use at DefCad.
My question is, if we can’t control the use of files and methods to produce actual weapons, what weapon will they use to protect profits? I just hope that we do not end up with a bunch of laws (and punishments) that do not reflect the severity of their corresponding actions, but rather the depth of the pockets of the people backing the bills. I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to be in more trouble for printing my own replacement parts for my scanner than I would for printing an AK-47.