Will 3-D printing lead to a new wave of piracy?

An emerging breed of machines lets us “print” a real-life object, like a toy or a tiara, in the same way we can print a document at our desk. The technology could inaugurate a new era of manufacturing but is also striking fear into the hearts of brand owners.

In a must-read story, the Economist explains how cheap 3-D printers could one day let knock-off artists crank out shoes, gadgets, watches and any type of prized design. While counterfeiting is already wide-spread, it could increase dramatically with the machines:

But while the [traditional] pirates’ labour rates and material costs may be far lower, the tools they use to make fakes are essentially the same as those used by the original manufacturers. Equipment costs alone have therefore limited the spread of the counterfeiting industry. But give every sweatshop around the world a cheap 3D printer coupled to a laser scanner, and pirated goods could well proliferate.

My colleague, Janko Roettgers, has reported that file-sharing platforms already aspire to be exchanges for 3-D goods (see “The Pirate Bay now lets you download physical objects“). In other words, kids may one day go from swapping not just MP3s on the internet but iPods too.

The Economist notes that 3D printing is likely to touch off a new intellectual property debate between those who want to label the devices “piracy machines” and those who see them as a technological revolution like the advent of personal computing.

It’s early days yet and, for now, the objects being replicated are dumb pieces of plastic. This means that, in the immediate future, it may only be firms like Lego or Oakley (not Apple or Porsche) that may have to worry.

But if the “print-me-anything” devices take off as predicted, we will eventually be able to copy most things around us. When that happens,  the debates over copyright and the DMCA will look like a tea party.

For a look at how New York company Shapeways has already “printed” more than one million objects, see: The Future will be printed in 3D

(Image by meunierd via Shutterstock)