Antonio Regalado

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Nathan Myhrvold's Cunning Plan to Prevent 3-D Printer Piracy

A patent that covers digital encryption of “objects” could bring copy protection to 3-D printing.

  • October 11, 2012

Sometime in the none-too-distant future, replacing your favorite coffee mug or creating a new iPhone case might be as simple as downloading a design you like from the Internet and firing up your 3-D printer.

Zip, zap, zip, and voilà.

Most 3-D printing has been done in industry or by hobbyists who share their designs freely online. Now Intellectual Ventures, the company run by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft CTO and alleged patent troll, has been issued a patent on a system that could prevent people from printing objects using designs they haven’t paid for.

The patent, issued Tuesday by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, is titled “Manufacturing control system” and describes methods for managing “object production rights.”

The patent basically covers the idea of digital rights management, or DRM, for 3-D printers. As with e-books that won’t open unless you pay Barnes & Noble and use its Nook reader, with Myhrvold’s technology your printer wouldn’t print unless you’ve paid up.

“You load a file into your printer, then your printer checks to make sure it has the rights to make the object, to make it out of what material, how many times, and so on,” says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at the nonprofit Public Knowledge, who reviewed the patent at the request of Technology Review. “It’s a very broad patent.”

Replicator: MakerBot’s new 3-D printer retails for $2,199 at a SoHo store.

The patent isn’t limited to 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. It also covers using digital files in extrusion, ejection, stamping, die casting, printing, painting, and tattooing and with materials that include “skin, textiles, edible substances, paper, and silicon printing.”

“This is an attempt to assert ownership over DRM for 3-D printing. It’s ‘Let’s use DRM to stop unauthorized copying of things’,” says Weinberg, author of It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw It Up, a 2010 white paper on how intellectual-property rights could harm the development of 3-D printing.

But there’s a big caveat to all this, says Weinberg: “Nothing says manufacturers have to use DRM.”

What is certain is that commercial manufacturers of toys and some consumer goods could eventually face a “Napster moment.” Recipes for simple physical objects have already begun circulating on the Internet. Anyone with a 3-D printer can make copies.

Control schema: A drawing from a patent won by Intellectual Ventures describes how to control digital rights for 3-D printing.

Facing similar disruptions, the music, book, and movie industries all turned to DRM as a way to stop copying. Results have been mixed. Apple’s iTunes dropped DRM for music in 2009 after consumers complained their songs wouldn’t play on non-Apple devices. But Apple still uses DRM for movies, as do DVD makers, which is why a pirated movie often won’t work on your home DVD player (see “The DVD Rebellion”).

The worry for manufacturers is that because the CAD files that carry directions for manufacturing objects are digital too, they’ll be just as easy to duplicate and re-distribute as an mp3 or a movie. 

One big difference is that you can’t generally copyright objects (exceptions include sculptures and architecture). That’s because copyright applies to creative works but not to “useful articles.” You can, however, patent a new invention or product design, and Myhrvold’s system is a way to make sure no one prints patented ideas without compensating their inventor.

That could be particularly important to Intellectual Ventures itself. Myhrvold’s operation, based in Bellevue, Washington, basically exists to file and buy patents, and currently controls nearly 40,000 of them, according to a spokesperson.

The manufacturing control patent, number 8,286,236, was filed back in 2008 and issued on October 9 to Invention Science Fund I, an arm of Myhrvold’s company.

Myhrvold’s timing could be perfect. The company MakerBot just opened the first retail store dedicated to 3-D printers in Manhattan’s trendy SoHo neighborhood, where it began selling its Replicator 2 desktop printer for $2,199. There’s also an online store with several thousand designs for downloading. (They’re still free, for now.)

“People have begun accepting there is going to be wide access to [3-D printing] machines, and they are going to be able to create a wide range of things,” says Weinberg. “People will want to control that. This patent is people thinking about how to do it.”

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