The lawyers catch on to distributed manufacturing

The 3D printing revolution has entered the next, depressingly obvious, stage of its life: accusations of copyright violations and cease and desist orders from those who believe that their rights are being trampled on by users of the new technology.

Distributed manufacturing, where digital designs are shipped quickly and economically to hyper-local manufacturing centres, promises to be a fundamental rethink of the entire production cycle: saving transportation costs, it opens up a world of customisation and allows those without large-scale production facilities to compete on a level playing field with gigantic corporations.

It's a revolution being pushed forward by a selection of companies, from distributed manufacturing specialist Ponoko to 3D printing store management service Shapeways. While relatively low-key at first, the movement is gaining momentum to the point at which - as with digital music distribution before it - the lawyers are starting to take an interest.

Earlier this week, a user of Shapeways - a service which allows user-generated CAD files to be uploaded and listed in a 'store,' from which visitors can order their own physical copy produced on-demand - reported that he had received a cease-and-desist notice from Paramount over an object he had uploaded to the site.

The object, which he designed himself, was a reproduction of the iconic box used in the film Super 8. Using stills from the film as a reference, Todd Blatt had painstakingly recreated it in a computer-aided design package and uploaded it to his Shapeways storefront in the hope of selling copies to other Super 8 fans.

"I designed the 3D cad file," he explains on his Blogspot blog, "uploaded it to Shapeways, ordered one, and promptly - 18 hours later - got a cease and desist letter from Paramount's lawyers telling me to take down the file."

While Paramount's response is predictable - doubly so when you learn that the company has licensed an official design to Quantum Mechanics to produce Paramount-sanctioned replicas - the speed at which the upload was noted is interesting. With just 18 hours passing from the initial upload to the cease-and-desist notification - a period of time which, Blatt claims, saw no orders and from which he derived no profit - it's clear that Paramount has a team watching sites like Shapeways and Ponoko for exactly this type of 'infringement.'

If Paramount is doing so, you can bet that others are doing the same. The digital music revolution took the record labels by surprise, and by the time they realised that piracy could be a problem the scale was too great to make an impact. Paramount and others have clearly learned their lesson, and are keen to jump on 3D printing technologies before they grow to the point where they will be impractical to police manually.

That's something that Derek Elley, co-founder of Ponoko, not only predicted but actively welcomes. "The sooner people complain the better - that means something is happening, some change is happening," he told thinq_ during an interview earlier this year. "Copying is a human trait - that is not a trait of any new manufacturing system we're trying to bring into play. Yes, it does speed that up."

Elley's argument - that as distributed manufacturing and 3D printing technologies head into the mainstream, copying is inevitable - appears to be playing out as predicted, but it's a battle without a clear end. "You can put a million developers in a room building the best DRM security system around your digital rights, but there so happens to be a billion people that are connected to the Internet," Elley explained. "So, you put a million against a billion - it's pretty simple who's going to win that fight, and there's no-one with a million developers in a room trying to set up a security system."

Elley called the industry to create a new way of managing the problem, but from Blatt's experience it looks like it's trying the good old fashioned 'have more lawyers than the other guy' technique. That's not to say it isn't working, however: the allegedly infringing design has been removed from Shapeways and will not be going back up.

"I didn't want to fight in court, so I complied," Blatt admits in his blog posting, "and am not selling, and have not sold, nor will I in the future be selling any Super 8 replicas. I took down the CAD file so no one can order it."

Paramount's claim - that the design infringed on its intellectual property - is a potentially thorny subject. While there's no doubt that Blatt's design was inspired by the film, it was not a direct replica but rather a fan creation inspired by an object seen on screen. As Blatt hasn't posted the full text of the cease and desist notification, it's hard to guess the grounds on which Paramount made its claims: if Blatt used the Super 8 brand in promoting his work or made direct reference to the film, then the company's argument would appear sound.

With Blatt not risking a potentially expensive court appearance, however, Paramount's claims of infringement will have to go untested. As services like Ponoko and Shapeways grow, however, it's a problem which is going to keep cropping up. For the sake of both the intellectual property holders and the distributed manufacturing movement, let's hope a better solution is found than the one currently used for film or music 'piracy.'