3D Printers More Affordable, Simple Than Ever, But Not a Threat

NEWS ANALYSIS: The advent of affordable, easy-to-use 3D scanners is going to change a lot, but are they a technology we should fear?

After my story about the MakerBot 3D printer appeared in eWEEK a few days ago, I received a few emails from friends and colleagues about this rapidly developing technology.

A couple thought that the fact that I watched one churn out everything from turbine wheels to Lego blocks at CeBIT was incredibly cool. But there was another undertone that also came across—fear.

There are some people who are worried about the device that MakerBot has wrought. A colleague told me in an email that he found the idea of 3D scanning and printing fascinating, but also a little frightening. There are a number of things that people worry about, which might explain the trepidation. Is it legal to copy another object and make copies quickly and easily? Suppose you copy and send someone a dangerous object?

But as Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge explains, this is nothing new. “Since we have had the tools to make objects, we’ve had the tools to copy objects,” Weinberg said, “so there’s not anything new about this.” However, he did note that the advent of quick, easy and relatively inexpensive 3D printing is causing people to think about the technology in a new way.

This is not to suggest that 3D printing is new, because it’s not. Weinberg said that what’s really happening is that the original patents have run out and much of the technology is in the public domain. He said that what’s new is that the technology is accessible to consumers. This means that for the first time, people can download object design files from the Internet, email those files to each other and happily reproduce objects out of those designs.

What’s important is that the objects you can make with a 3D printer aren’t normally protected by copyright, as Weinberg explained in a recent paper. Basically objects that can be copyrighted are things like sculpture because they’re artistic expressions. Ordinary useful objects, say a screwdriver or a turbine wheel, aren’t copyrighted and can’t be.

However, objects can be patented and if you do a 3D copy of a patented object, then you’ve infringed on the patent. Right now the disruptive nature of easily accessible 3D printing has caused a certain amount of consternation regarding exactly what can be created and what can’t be. Weinberg said the biggest worry there is that somebody will try to extend copyright laws to include physical objects beyond art. “It would create havoc to extend copyrights to objects without being incredibly thoughtful,” he said.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...