What Do 3D Printers Mean For Copyright?
August 26, 2013

What Do 3D Printers Mean For Copyright?

Johannes Gutenberg didn’t technically invent the printing press — that technology likely originated in China — but what he did do was to perfect the concept of movable type. Until this point, books had to be copied by hand, and while printing methods existed, most plates were a single page.

Gutenberg revolutionized the printing of text and made books something the common man could possess.

The next big revolution came when Chester Carlson invented the photocopier, or at least the technology that Xerox essentially used to refine the technology. While Gutenberg is widely known, Carlson isn’t.

Perhaps this is because Carlson invented a technology that could “copy.”

The irony is that while he opened up a can of worms regarding copyright issues, Carlson actually worked as a patent attorney. He thought up the idea because he was required to make a large number of copies of important papers.

Today we’re on the cusp of the next revolution of copying — 3D.

Printers that can print in 3D have slowly been gaining traction, but these aren’t technically printing anything. In truth, these work by gradually adding layers of a resin and thus create a 3D object, but the old nomenclature remains because it is familiar.

So too, will be the problems because in addition to 3D printing 3D scanners are coming. This past week, MakerBot announced that its Digitizer will soon come to market for $1,400. This can scan small devices — and in the various news stories the objects were toy Gnomes.

This had me thinking of the possibilities.

Back during the oil crisis of the 1970’s, action figures went small (from the 12-inch G.I. Joes to the more popular approximately three-inch Star Wars figures), but this also paved the way for companies such as Kenner to produce dozens of figures for Star Wars. Every character that had a few seconds of screen time was eventually released, and subsequent toy lines such as G.I. Joe (revived in the smaller form) followed suit.

This was part of every toy companies’ dream of “collect them all.”

And back then, during the airing of the Star Wars Christmas Special, a character from that galaxy far, far away was released and would soon reach cult status. That was Boba Fett, who appears in brief animated sequence and actually is more of a jerk in the mini-series than he is in the films. A year before the release of The Empire Strikes Back the figure was introduced as a mail-in promo. Buy a certain number of figures, send in the proof of purchase and the figure would be mailed to you.

Soon, a 3D printer could change the need to mail anything in. Imagine instead that you could now download a code from a video game and get to print out the toy. Imagine not having to wait — ala Bart Simpson for the spy camera. Certainly anyone who waited for Boba Fett, or the subsequent other figures that were offered via mail-in promotions, can understand.

On the dark side however, what does the ability to scan and copy a figure mean?

Anyone who played with action figures knows you never had enough Storm Troopers, Cobra troops or other soldiers to battle. Imagine being able to head to the scanner and copying a small army — talk about ATTACK OF THE CLONES.

Now today, the scanner will set you back $1,400 and the printer another $2,500. The materials to print aren’t cheap either, but consider that a decade ago this was more concept than reality.

In a decade the printers could be sub-$1,000 based on the rate the principal of Moore’s Law and other similar technology advances. In other words, today’s toddlers might be able to print out their toys when they are tweens.

But what happens to copyright? That is an interesting consideration, as it could mean action figures, miniatures, even toy cars could be printed out — but also copied. This could certainly impact the collector market, but it could also allow a lot more Storm Troopers!

Soon toy makers — and let’s face it, who is going to copy a mug or something useful — will soon face the same issues that book publishers have faced since Carlson invented the photocopier. Imagine if toys will soon have restrictions on fair use and copyright. It is a changing world.

Image Credit: MakerBot

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer and has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and the fitness sports industry for more than 15 years. In that time his work has appeared in more than three dozen publications including Newsweek, PC Magazine and Wired. His work has also appeared on Forbes.com, Inc.com, Cnet.com, and Fortune.com. Peter is a regular writer for redOrbit.com.

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