Piracy gets real

Posted on April 16, 2012


Pirate BayFebruary saw the launch of a new category on The Pirate Bay, a sometimes controversial file sharing site that is considered to be a source for copyright material without the annoying little feature of having to pay for it. From now on, as well as music, films, e-books and others the site now offers “physibles” which are digital files that can be used by 3D printers to create something real and physical. Hence the name, physibles.

RepRap v.2 'Mendel' open-source FDM 3D printer

RepRap v.2 'Mendel'

For now, such printers are in the hands of hobbyists and old-school hackers, designing and creating small plastic objects – little more than trinkets – though they are now starting to be made available in a more consumer-oriented form. The continual improvements being made to the printers means they could soon be able to deal with more complex materials and shapes and produce larger objects. As yet, there are no object scanners that can produce the files needed to copy an existing object, but with the rate of digital development accelerating all the time they are bound to appear sooner or later.

Using such printers to produce “pirate” objects from the digital files may seem like it is a fanciful notion but remember that MP3 players were very much a niche market too until the free music from websites such as Napster came on the scene and Apple produced a good consumer model in the form of the iPod. Perhaps, like Napster, file sharing of object printing codes might do the same for physibles.

iPodsUnlike music files, which saw the use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to supposedly reduce piracy, the situation with physical objects is far harder to deal with. It might be possible to use some form of marker on the original object, much as banknotes are marked to stop them being copied by scanners and printed by modern printers from the scanned copy. On the other hand, what stops a mark on a physical object just being covered up with a bit of tape to effectively remove it and let the scanning go ahead?

Cambridge University computer scientist Markus Kuhn suggests an alternative method, borrowed from music DRM, might be possible. Some companies watermark their audio files by encoding copyright information in frequencies outside the range of human hearing. Normally, these get discarded by compression algorithms and it is this which Kuhn says could be used in physical objects, by using the mechanical tolerances of the manufacturing for the original. Within the tolerance range, a marking algorithm could etch a tiny pattern that would be picked up by the scanner. Valid 3D files could be marked by subtly altering the design without changing the printed object.

An object printer could then distinguish the marking in the manufacturer’s file, which contains the alteration, and a scanned pirate file, which would not. At the moment, it seems a lot of effort to go to and a little bit of a hope against reality to judge from the ineffectiveness of all previous tehnical measures to reduce piracy in other areas. Worse yet, the whole notion of such protection might even be irrelevant in the real world anyway.

While the vast majority of written text, music and film or video are automatically subject to copyright or other Intellectual Property (IP) protection, the overwhelming majority of physical objects are not. Inventions protected by patents are clearly protected, as are trademarked logos – but the objects themselves are not. If you want to build a desk like one you saw down at the local furniture store, then you can simply measure an original up and make your own. As things stand t the moment, the same is true for printing an object using a 3D printer. Virtually nothing you could possibly print is in any way protected – so the 3D files for physibles cannot be “piracy” at all.

Quadshot 3D printed parts V2Manufacturers could, of course, follow the previous lead of the music companies, the film companies and now the producers of e-books and scream at governments for yet more protection in the form of new IP laws. If history is any guide, they probably will do exactly that – but if history is any guide at all that would be both a disaster and a waste of time.Instead, they could learn from the mistakes made by those who have trod his road before and encourage the legal downloading of physible files, erhaps even making the files for their own objects directly and legally available on-line.

If everyone had a 3D printer and everyone could buy object designs legally, perhaps we would see legal use of the physibles – and along with it, increased sales for the manufacturers as well as reduced production costs. There is a win-win formula in the use of such files if, and only if, legal access to them is reasonably priced and available. It presents an incredible opportunity for the manufacturer, a great sales model for on-line companies selling the designs and a superb chance for customers to get the best available choice at a reasonable price.

It even, almost incidentally, could see an end to the industrial era of object production for sale and the associated high-street sales outlets for the objetcs. While the latter two possibilities will scare many, most of human civilisation managed quite well without the and we can certainly do so again. Not to mention the probable improvements it would make to climate management by ending industrialisation world-wide.