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People in the 3-D printing world have talked for years about the possibility of unauthorized copying and sharing of designs—similar to what the file-sharing program Napster allowed for music. Now the first commercial solution to this as-yet theoretical problem is preparing to launch. It was developed by Authentise, a startup based in Mountain View, California.

The company’s software makes it possible for a design to be sent to a 3-D printer in such a way that it can be printed only once. “You don’t receive the raw design file,” says Andre Wegner, cofounder and CEO of the company, “so you can’t copy and share it.”

Authentise’s approach is similar to the way Netflix sends viewers at home a stream of video frames only as their computer needs them to play a movie. Instructions that tell a 3-D printer about how to squirt out material are sent to it only as it needs them. Once the process is done, the instructions are instantly discarded, leaving a completed print but no full digital representation of its design.

“We’re already talking to a number of people about using the technology to enable buying of designs online, with an iTunes-like functionality,” says Wegner. He declines to say which companies are involved, but says that a toy or movie company such as Disney could use Authentise’s technology to allow people to pay a small fee to print out, for example, a movie character.

A version of the technology, called SendShapes, is set to launch next month. To receive a design a person will have to download a small software program that receives the streamed design and passes it along to a 3-D printer. Authentise, which has five employees, was founded at and is partially supported by Singularity University, an educational nonprofit focused on future technologies supported by Google and the X Prize foundation.

Some companies are already attempting to control the sharing of 3-D design files that they say infringe on their copyright. In February this year, the TV network HBO demanded that nuProto, an Orlando, Florida, company that offers 3-D printing services, stop printing iPhone docks with a design inspired by the show Game of Thrones. Shapeways, a company that charges to print out designs on its large “farms” of 3-D printers that work with many materials, including metal and ceramic, has hired a staff attorney after several incidents in which companies claimed their rights had been infringed by designers using the company’s services and online catalogue.

Wegner doesn’t pretend that Authentise can make it technically impossible for a person with the right motivation and knowledge to find a way to collect a streamed design file. Rather, he aims to make the process of paying for access to a protected design smooth enough to be more attractive than unauthorized copying. “We think you can make printed objects cheap and easy enough to print to attract the majority of consumers,” he says, drawing an analogy with how millions of people pay iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify for music despite piracy still being very easy.

Michael Weinberg, a staff attorney with Washington nonprofit Public Knowledge, which works on intellectual property issues related to technology, says there will likely be a market for technology like Authentise’s as technological improvements lead more consumers and businesses to buy 3-D printers or to use commercial 3-D printing services. However, it will have to be implemented carefully, he says, pointing to the music industry’s failed attempts to rein in file sharing by embedding copy protection, or DRM, into music files. Major music download services no longer use such technology.

“There are situations where a protected distribution chain can be really helpful,” says Weinberg. “Think of a person that wants a verified replacement part for something that is broken.” A person in that situation would want to know that the design they were getting was the real thing, says Weinberg, whether they were printing it themselves, using a third-party service like that of Shapeways, or visiting a physical store such as Staples, which is adding 3-D printers to some of its locations.

Wegner says that his company will use its technology only in ways that offer easier alternatives to using unauthorized print designs, rather than embedding it into design files or printers in ways that lock down how they can be used. However, others have expressed interest in more controlling methods of copy protection (see “Nathan Myhrvold’s Plan to Prevent 3-D Printer Privacy”).

Whatever copy control mechanisms gain traction, legal tussles and perhaps even court cases appear inevitable. Intellectual property laws affecting 3-D designs and physical objects are much more complex than those involved in unauthorized copying of music and movies, says Weinberg, who recently published a white paper on copyright and 3-D printing. While media files, as “creative works,” are unambiguously protected by copyright laws, “useful objects” have traditionally been exempt from copyright protection, and when a 3-D design can be copyrighted is something of a copyright gray area. But such uncertainty is unlikely to prevent companies from trying to use copyright to assert themselves, says Weinberg. “If you would like to control the use of something, finding a way to get copyright on it is a very attractive thing to do.”

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Tagged: Computing, Materials, 3-D printing, additive manufacturing

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