NPR reported yesterday on the increasingly accessible and easy-to-use 3D Printing technology that is beginning to revolutionize objects the same way that mp3s revolutionized music. With the release if Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect—a motion sensing controller of sorts that works by detecting your hand and body movements—a workable 3D scanner that used to cost $10,000 can now be had for a song. Paired with a Makerbot 3D printer, which retails for under $2,000, anyone anywhere can create or download designs off the internet and begin printing objects with virtually no design skills whatsoever.
This is all undoubtedly very, very cool; there’s just one snag—copyright law. Owners of Makerbots can download digital designs for 3D objects the Thingiverse, a website run by Makerbot. As it happens, some of the most popular items on Thingiverse are copyrighted. Anything from Mario figurines to Darth Vader busts can be downloaded and created at home. So far most major intellectual property holders have either not noticed or turned a blind eye to these designs, but that can only last so long.
According to the NPR report, “Moulinsart, which owns the rights to the cartoon Tintin, served Thingiverse with a Millenium Digital Copyright Act takedown notice” for designs of Tintin’s moon rocket. Copyright experts say that Moulinsart is legally in the right, but many aren’t so sure that attempting to “Sue The Genie Back Into the Bottle” is the best course of action. Just as music piracy has continued to proliferate, and indeed expand exponentially since Napster was first shut down, it seems unlikely that copyright holders will have much success preventing denizens of the internet from creating and spreading designs of copyrighted characters and other IP. One alternative would be to take the classic, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ Rather than spending resources and public goodwill in protracted legal battles, Moulinsart could create their own official Tintin designs and sell them to the superfans who are creating and downloading copyrighted designs.
The potential ramifications for this impending revolution of things are huge, and intellectual property holders who learn from the successes and failures of the digital music revolution may stand to gain a great deal from it.