There’s little question that the advent of the Internet greatly changed the landscape of copyright management. Media producers struggle to control access to their products as digital distribution becomes easier. As much as one quarter of the traffic on the Internet is related to software and media piracy; once a system of piracy is stifled or controlled, a new one appears to replace it.
There’s been little evidence of a negative effect on the profits of the digital media industry due to piracy. In fact, as piracy has increased, so have the profits of the movie industry. Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve Corporation, attributes the existence of piracy to a lack of adequate service rather than the price of content. Piracy is a much greater issue in less wealthy nations. Government enforcement has failed to reverse this trend.
Now, we are witnessing the migration of this phenomenon into the realm of physical goods. Manufacturing is becoming much more distributed as it shifts to digital platforms. The issue of digital intellectual property control will quickly become much more important in patent law, and the methods that content producers have been using so far to enforce their ownership on the Web will continue to fail.
Recently, Defense Distributed published the design information for the first gun that can be printed using a 3D printer. The Liberator fires .380 caliber ammunition and, other than the firing pin, can be completely produced at home using one of the many hobbyist 3D printers on the market. Safety and reliability concerns aside, anyone with access to a 3D printer can produce a firearm, which leads to some major concerns about who will utilize this technology.
This technology could potentially be used for harmful and violent actions. Some legislators have already taken the initiative to outlaw production of these goods, but how effective will this legislation be? Many people support the notion of prohibiting access to firearms and certain firearm accessories — like high capacity magazines — but even those are becoming more widely available because of 3D printing. High capacity magazines and lower receivers for the AR-15 have been digitally designed, disseminated across the Internet and printed off by many users. While legislation designed to prohibit these actions might be well-intentioned, this is only the beginning; it will be a massive challenge to control what people print off in their own homes.
Copyright and patent law will also face an uphill battle against information dissemination on the Web. Companies like HBO are now dealing with people producing goods that infringe upon intellectual property rights. Websites that have been the backbones of pirated material transmission are beginning to expand into the world of 3D printing. Why go to the store to buy a patented good when you can just download the designs and produce it yourself for a fraction of the cost? Of course, this is a little simplistic considering the current 3D replication technology is severely limited, but as 3D scanning and printing become more commonplace, this issue will only become more pronounced.
Distributed manufacturing technologies are set to severely disrupt conventional law and policy. Prohibiting specific methods of 3D printer utilization won’t address the problems, because the low barrier to entry ensures that nearly anyone that wants to produce these goods will be able to. Rather than focusing on how to keep specific tools out of the hands of specific people, we need to focus on the underlying societal issues.
We need to start adapting to a culture in which information is openly accessible. Our traditional methods of controlling access to information and allowing dissemination to only the qualified are quickly becoming irrelevant. Instead of making laws that decide who can and can’t have a gun, we need to address the underlying issue of violence. Instead of using our legal system to prosecute people who share patented designs, we need to focus on how we can reward innovators.
Design information will continue to become more accessible, though it’s difficult to say whether it’s due to the open source community or simply the increasing inter-connectivity of the digital age, It’s imperative that we face these changes with the goal of improving the utilization of current technologies and the innovation of future ones. As information becomes more accessible, people are empowered to create new things. Greater levels of restriction and prohibition won’t fix the problems we face because of these new technologies. Rather, we must focus on how we can encourage their adoption in a positive, productive manner.Image Credits: Open Source Today, Electric-Eye, alexpb