Additive Adventures in Design & Fabrication

                                     from the desk of Adam B. Levine

They Can Print What?!

Intellectual Property &

The Future of  @Home  Manufacturing.

Feb 05, 2013

The clash between Intellectual

Property and cheap, distributed,

additive manufacturing is both

inevitable and predictable. 


It's one of those deciding battles

where for better or worse, the world

 is different afterwards.


The conflict is obvious - Patents and

 Copyright are about protecting ideas, while the line of development Manufacturing is following demands these ideas be created, shared, improved upon ad infinitum. Trademarks are about brand control, identity really - That system may not be ideal, but it doesn’t have the same sort of conflict as Patents.


Within the next few years this issue will come to the forefront, with conventional design/manufacturing firms screaming that their sales are falling due to rampant production of unlicensed/open sourced (reverse-engineered) "stuff".     Imagine something comparable to "pirated" IPhone 5 being for sale at your local flea market (and online equivilents) for 1/4th the price Apple charges for it, and you watch them print it (electronics, antennae, screen and all) while you wait.






















Imagine the panic of investment banks, interested parties and governments around the world.  The old system isn't protecting our property!  All because of this rapid prototyping technology some idiots made cheap and pervasive - Now anybody can make whatever they want, or more importantly steal Something you paid/worked/licensed to develop without giving you a dime for your trouble.  We'll be ruined.  Something must be done.


You might think this is Science Fiction, but just two weeks ago Nokia released the specs to print the shell of the new Nokia Lumia,


With accompanying statement:


“In the future, I envision wildly more modular and customisable phones,” he continued. “Perhaps in addition to our own beautifully designed phones, we could sell some kind of phone template and entrepreneurs the world over could build a local business on building phones precisely tailored to the needs of his or her local community. You want a waterproof, glow-in-the-dark phone with a bottle-opener and a solar charger? Someone can build it for you — or you can print it yourself!"


First off, big kudos to Nokia for being so forward thinking - They don't comment on the IP issues this gives rise to, but it's a very positive sign. 


But this is just the opening volley, and as Nokia isn't a US company, there's a good chance we'll see legislative action on the topic within the next 3-5 years.  The question is, do we wait for a "Something Must Be Done" crisis to force the issue or have the conversation like rational adults, letting fact and reality guide our hand.


...Paved with Good Intentions


If we wait, the knee-jerk reaction will be Prohibition.


 IP Laws will pretty much stay the same, while a new government agency or two will be introduced to regulate "@home manufacturing businesses". 


This will probably take the form of a licensing scheme, where in order to own & operate an "@home manufacturing unit" you will need to take a class on intellectual property, pay fees for a license from the government, and put your identification number on every item that comes out, making your machine and thus you responsible for it.


The Good News:  A class associated with the licensing requirement. will probably guaranteeing  some minimum level of proficiency operating the machinery.   If a product is pirated, defective or fraudulent it's easy to find out whom to punish.


The Bad News: By requiring a license, hobbyists and tinkerers may turn into outlaws and black-market participants by default.   Those who do participate in the licensing scheme will have the advantage of fewer competitors, but since every product can always be tied back to their machine it introduces a whole slew of liability issues that haven't even been considered yet.


When it comes to piracy, the assumption is every act is intentional - But how many ideas are there? How many designs?  Additive Manufacturing makes the entire design process "Think it up, design or scan it, create it on-site".   So where does the "research to make sure you're not conflicting with anyone elses existing intellectual property" step come into play?  Before or after you hit the print button?  


Additive manufacturing is so important because it shrinks the minimum viable market size to one consumer.   Is it the @home manufacturers responsibility to research every single design they are asked to print?  Probably.


IP liability insurance will become mandatory, inadvertent violations frequent and payouts punitive in the stated hopes of discouraging similar behavior.


 But you can't discourage creation once the potential of the tools are realized.  It will  be easy to get one of these self-replicating machines, but expensive to get a license.  And so the blackmarket will flourish with the inevitable criminality that accompanies.  The costs of prohibition are already stacking up, and we won't even address enforcement here.  But it doesn't have to be this way.
























A Collaborative Renaissance

Everything Old is New Again


Patents exist for a reason, innovation is not free or even cheap.  But who says the way we're doing it now works very well at all?  Large producing firms defensively acquire patents  as leverage in the event they are sued by a competitor.  So-called "patent trolls" buy patents like lottery tickets while wielding the  letter of the law as a thief would a gun; extorting value they did not earn while leaving their victims shaken and thankful more was not taken from them. 


The individual inventor is in there somewhere, but with the process to patent a single idea requiring multiple years and thousands of dollars (not including legal costs), what average individual has the time to create ideas and protect them all using only his own resources?  Not many.


Lincoln said "The Patent System added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.", and it did.   But over the intervening decades the creosote of bureaucracy and abuse has slowly choked what was once a vital part of American free market innovation.  I propose we take it back.


The Industrial Revolution Seemed Like a Good Idea...

Centralized manufacturing has major expenses associated in the creation of even trivial objects - The mantra of "we'll make it up in volume"  leads to a zero sum way of thinking where your costs are fixed at a minimum floor, but you have to compete with all other manufacturers in your space for the profit that remains.   This is the nature of mass manufacturing everything, and the culture it cultivates is one of technological stagnation and secrecy.


On the complete other end of the spectrum you've got a place like Thingiverse where nearly every design is available for free and is open source - You can take anything that anybody else has made, change it a little bit,  improve it, make it easier to assemble,  mash it up with something you or someone else created, and then put it back out there for others to become inspired by your work and do the same.  Each Thing has a page, and each page proudly displays the lineage of past Things it was derived from or based off of.  The only thing missing here is the value proposition - Some people use it to promote their other proprietary works for sale elsewhere, but mostly it is people collaborating to advance what is possible with the new manufacturing & design reality.


The coming challenge is to take this virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle of innovation leading to more innovation, and transpose it onto for-profit IP.



















New Uses for Old technology


Perpetual Fractional Payments

 A Thousand Bites at the Apple

If you have a great, profitable idea and you patent it under the current system - That's great!   But how do you make money with it? You could sell it (if someone wants to buy it, ideas are cheap)  If you want to bring it to market yourself,  you'll have to find a manufacturer, financing, packaging, marketing, distribution, and on and on.   Most patents are improvements to existing products, so what happens if someone improves your patented idea and patents it themselves?  Not only is your old system obsolete, but if you want to upgrade to the newly developed "state of the art" there are very expensive licensing fees or redundant development costs while you re-invent their re-invention of your technology.   Talk about wasting time and effort.


Instead, why not take advantage of the advantage of our digital world - Combine the concept of Creative Commons' Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 licensing scheme mixed with an open value transfer services like Bitcoin and Ricardian contracts sprinkled in there to automate the whole thing.


The trick is to design the system in such a way so you can have a single object purchased provide value to everyone along the path of its creation.  Initially these relationships will be simple but as the virtuous cycle kicks in things get complicated. There would be a small submission fee to make sure people bring in designs that are at least a little thought through, say $10.   If someone wants to examine your design in detail, it might cost $.50, if they want to print it, or modify it: $1.   Prices need to be low to encourage experimentation with existing designs.    In that $1 for a use license, at least 50% should always go to the current creator with payments scaling down to earlier creators, but never ceasing to exist entirely.  With Bitcoin and a project called OpenTransactions, you can transfer values as low as .00000001 bitcoin instantly to anyone else with virtually no transaction fees, automatically, with execution based on the fulfilment of pre-determined conditions.


Put simply, if I invent a innovative new doorstopper and upload it to this service, and then you came along and wanted to print it, you would take the other side of that contract and in exchange for $1 sent to an automatically generated bitcoin address, you would be sent the file and granted a license to print or modify under the condition that you make any improvements available under the same type of licensing conditions.


As the content creator, I only make and sign this contract once and then just  put it out there for as many people to take me up on it as like my product.    This remains just as true if my doorstopper is the 5th generation of novel improvement on that doorstopper, except there the $1 once sent to the generated bitcoin address would be split up and distributed to all the contributors based on a diminishing returns algorithm.   The more time that passes and the more ubiquitious your innovation becomes in practical use, the less you earn per license issuance.   



Compensated Open Source Innovation for All

Instead of focusing your time and energy on protecting your ideas and technology, it is suddenly in your best interest to make sure as many people see your innovation as possible, and if someone wants to improve it that's great!   Not only do you have a monetary interest, but you can cheaply use their improved version and then build your own improvements on top.

For manufacturing, this means instead of having a contract with a content owner to create 100,000 of their product every 6 months they could become "local manufacturing centers" that can make anything with designs acquirable through this system, paying $1 for each  time they print a design, and charging the customer the difference between what the licensing + material cost are and the prevailing market rate.  For an additional premium, customers could work with your designer to customize the product to their tastes.




















What's Already Possible (for a price)


For the creator, everything you build goes into the library and if you tag your part correctly it will come up over and over as future innovators look for components to derive from, or consumers choose they want your product created at a hub.  This gives you control over what requires your time - Your designs all have long tails, so you can stay focused on improving new ideas rather than on protecting the ones you've already created.


This is a big idea, please tell me where I'm wrong and explain to me the things I just don't understand.  Until then, I think this could be a better way for a more productive and open future, as it would quickly create a library of quality, constantly improving designs that could be cheaply licensed, and thus competitively manufactured in all localities while still providing value to the brains behind the design.


People want to create, and do it anyhow despite the hostile and confusing IP envrionment we find ourselves in.   We might have continued along without having this conversation if it wern't for increasingly available 3d Printers, but that ain't the way things are headed.


Adam B. Levine


image credit

Image Credit:

1988 State of the Art

The Original Nike Viscoelastic Unit Comprised Of A Resilient Gas Inflated Insert Within A Shock Absorbing Foam Material

image credit

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