3D Piracy

3D printing is cool, and new. It is a peripheral device in its infancy and when I look at a 3D printer it is the same feeling of excitement I have as I did in 1998, staring at the x2 speed CD Burner that had just set my partner back nearly a thousand dollars. It was bulky, connected via SCSI and wholly magical. It could fit the entire content of our Powermac 6500’s hard drive on four disks. That took six hours and the disks were eight dollars each, but we accepted this as the way of new technologies.

New technology needs to be slow and bulky, the consumables costing a small fortune and the ripples that the device has in the wider world will not be apparent until they are firmly out of control.

To follow through the above commenced case in point; music CDs. When first launched the music industry felt assured it was the ultimate step in copy protection. You could dub the content to tape but there was quality loss. You had to purchase the disk to hear the music in all its post LP glory, with the technology required to circumvent the protection costing millions of dollars.

With the advent of CD burners and some dodgy software in the late nineties, that all changed and the new age of piracy commenced. Gone were the days of selling cassettes at the local thrift markets, replaced by the arcane art of decryption, ripping and forty-five minute disk burns. A small fortune was made in the distribution of duplicated objects off of list servers, out of swaps meets and secure circles of physical distribution. The companies tried to wage war, the pirates moved around a lot and no one really won out as the problem shifted from the hands centralised organised crime into a decentralised mass of children, teenagers and house wives.

Then there was the MP3, the compressed bundle of aural joy that lacked the high fidelity of the CD quality sound but was small enough to distribute over dial up modems and the beginnings of the high speed internet. The rise of the peer-to-peer networks, bit torrent protocols and Usenet servers providing the methods of distribution that provided for piracy. You could illegally distribute in (relative) anonymity to a faceless audience without a disk changing hands. This was the shift from the object orientated economy to a content economy. It happened so fast and so quietly that the industry (largely) did not notice and when they did, could not kill it fast enough. The model eventuated into the industry standard, and in little over ten years the war was over and a multi-billion dollar distribution platform was (largely) destroyed.

This was the industrial revolution for the entertainment industry and these lessons are about to be taught all over again.

My 3D printer – still in pieces – cost me less than $500. Once built, it will print replacement Ikea parts, model components, and game pieces for my fortnightly Pathfinder role playing game, models possibly lifted from World of Warcraft using Open GL 3D model ripping software. If it fits on the print bed and the extrusion head has sufficient resolution, anything is printable, including (to reference Horst Hortner of Ars Electronica’s Future Lab) Lego parts.

I can (not to say that I will) model 3D replicas of my favourite Lego bricks and distribute the .stl files via bit torrent, Usenet or whatever the newly minted method of decentralised distribution of pirated materials ends up being.

De ja vu, all over again.

Copyrighted materials digitised and distributed before the rights holder have the opportunity to kill the idea. How long will it be before a 13 year old living in Brisbane will be able to download a full Lego kit and print the thing on the 3D printer they built from salvaged parts?

How long before we see the first instance of legal action between Lego and the self-same 13 year old?

Lego Man

Addendum: After five minutes in the Google Sketchup 3D Warehouse, I found the 3D models for a Lego man. Yay?

About: A nerd with first class honours, Daniel loves to indulge in digital tom foolery and hacktavist activity. In his spare time he makes theatre with young people, writes for stage/screen /comic books on the train.

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