Digital Pirates, 3D Printing and the End of Copyright

Wait until you see what happens when the debate over copyright is extended beyond music, film, video games and books and into the realm of physical objects like sneakers and toys.

If you think the copyright wars over SOPA and PIPA that resulted in the Wikipedia Blackout were contentious, wait until you see what happens when the debate over copyright is extended beyond music, film, video games and books and into the realm of physical objects like sneakers and toys. The Pirate Bay - without question one of the most controversial sites on the Internet for its full-on embrace of digital piracy – just announced plans to introduce a new content category of torrents for sharing 3D printing designs. In layman's terms, if you have a 3D printer, you will now be able to download digital designs for some objects the same way you download digital music and then print out physical objects for free.

That's right, the war over copyright is about to go 3D.

On one hand are the people who would benefit from free access to these “physibles” – essentially digital files with instructions that tell you exactly how to print out something in the physical world. On the other hand are the designers and creators who would stand to lose from their designs entering the public domain. While the whole notion of "physibles" is literally brand new, it appears to be the same argument as in the digital media space: artists and content creators want to get paid for their work, but content consumers don’t want to pay if they don't have to. Does this mean that the marginal cost of creating any physical product will become zero, just as in the digital media space?

Until 3D printing takes off in the mainstream, however, the fight is likely to be low-key and waged on the fringes of the Internet. For now, two of the most popular items in The Pirate Bay's "physibles" category are lawn darts and the 1970 Chevelle Hot Rod. Most people use 3D printers to print things like plastic desk toys. In the future, however, people may be printing everything from their next pair of sneakers to spare parts for their vehicles. In the future, everyone will be a craft manufacturer, printing out whatever they need, when they need it, in the comfort of their own garage (or wherever else they hook up their 3D printer).

That’s certainly the vision of The Pirate Bay:

"We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects. Or as we decided to call them: Physibles. Data objects that are able (and feasible) to become physical. We believe that things like three dimensional printers, scanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare sparts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years. [...] The benefit to society is huge. No more shipping huge amount of products around the world. No more shipping the broken products back. No more child labour. We'll be able to print food for hungry people. We'll be able to share not only a recipe, but the full meal. We'll be able to actually copy that floppy, if we needed one."

Essentially, once you break down physical objects into their digital source code, you can share them with whomever you want. Think of this digital source code as the "DNA" of a product - if you know the proper DNA sequence for an object, you can become its creator.

3D Printing, which is one of the most fascinating and least understood trends in the technology world heading into 2012, is about to encounter the same contentious debate over copyright that has plagued other digital media industries. If you think the Hollywood studios were angry when they found out that full copies of their blockbuster films were being downloaded and shared, imagine how angry a company like Nike might be when they find out that their world-class sneaker designs are being shared and printed out around the world. Imagine what will happen to the retail store experience when all the stocked items you might want at Target or Walmart are suddenly available on your home 3D printer for free. Yes, that's right, it would be “catastrophic.” Welcome to the world of 3D copyright.

image: Internet Pirate / Shutterstock

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