The Closest Thing to Patenting the Internet Has Happened

One wouldn't expect a single DRM to have such implications

Some may not be giving it much importance, but 3D Printing as a worldwide commodity is a foregone conclusion, just like normal inkjet printers have changed the face of the world and completely ruined short-run commercial printing during the last two decades.

Alas, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office never sleeps, it seems. Its latest act was to approve a patent application that has the potential to completely ruin the idea of consumer 3D Printing even before it germinates.

For those who need to be put up to speed, 3D Printers are devices that can create three-dimensional objects just from receiving virtual input.

The first 3D printing store was opened last month, and there is even a project that will make low-cost, open-source models.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Pirate Bay foresees a change in the concept of copying, whereby users take information from the Internet and create physical objects, “Physibles” as they call them.

More importantly is that, with enough research, 3D printing could reach a point where even food would be created in such a manner.

The new patent granted by USPTO to Intellectual Ventures may completely ruin all this. What it does is describe a DRM by means of which a 3D Printer will not be allowed to print an object if a “digital fingerprint” is found in a database of copyrighted products and ideas.

“This is an attempt to assert ownership over DRM for 3D printing. It’s ‘Let’s use DRM to stop unauthorized copying of things’,” says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at the non-profit Public Knowledge, who reviewed the patent for Technology Review.

The patent can be found here, is called “Manufacturing control system” and describes how a 3D printer can be restricted as described above.

The choice of words is as harmless as Intellectual Ventures could make it but, with the risk of sounding dramatic, it can still be seen as a DRM on the whole Internet, rather than the 3D printers themselves. After all, it is the free use of information available there that people will be denied, not the ownership and/or use of the 3D Printer.

Editor's Note: 

I am not saying that it is wrong to want to protect ideas and existing inventions (like, say, cars), but the patent covers truly controversial items, such as human skin (arguably justified, since not everyone should be allowed to create such things in their study) and edible substances (no easy food for the poor, it seems).

Maybe I am worrying over nothing, but the IP wars going on, and game companies' experiments with DRMs, didn't exactly build up my confidence in such things, or the patent system in general.

Even the greatest of IT companies can't keep themselves from launching into multinational wars over the shape of icons and menus. Knowing that, there is little cause for me to assume this 3D Printing DRM patent won't be misused, intentionally or otherwise.

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