Should We Allow Copies of Analogue Objects?


I write a lot about copyright, and the right to share stuff. In particular, I think that for digital artefacts – text, music, video etc. - free software has shown us that there is no contradiction between allowing these to be copied freely and creating profitable businesses that are powered by that abundance. What has to change, though, is the nature of the business models that underlie them.

The parallel between digital content and software is obvious enough, which makes it relatively easy to see how media companies might function against a background of unrestricted sharing. But we are fast approaching the point where it is possible to make copies of *analogue* objects, using 3D printers like the open source RepRap system. This raises some interesting questions about what might be permitted in that situation if businesses are still to thrive.

Or rather, an anonymous commenter on my opendotdotdot blog has raised the following very specific questions arising out of a post there touching on similar issues:

Once we have 3D printers and 3D scanners, I'll be able to make an exact reproduction of an Aston Martin - which I assume you have no problem with.

But in the early years of 3D printers I may be the only one in my neighborhood with a high quality printer - so is it OK for me to print out Aston Martins for my friends? Surely this is OK, too.

Continuing the thought experiment, before 3D printers are household items, only large manufacturing corporations will have them. So is it OK for New China Motors to scan and print an Aston Martin and sell it?

The real question, of course, is does Aston Martin own the rights to the design of their cars? Certainly New China Motors has the technology and capability to copy an Aston Martin today. In your view, should they be able to do this? And if not, what differentiates this type of counterfeiting from the cases above?

These questions manage to encapsulate so well the future challenges for companies that make analogue stuff I thought it would be worth answering them here in the hope that it might provide some food for thought for Computerworld UK readers.

Here's my quick answer to the questions: yes.

What I liked about them is that they start from a very particular case and widen the scope more and more - presumably in an attempt to find a logical contradiction in my replies. I have dealt with that challenge by giving the same reply to all questions, so I need to explain in greater detail why I think that response is justified.

As it turns out, the reasoning is the same for all. The first question asks: “Once we have 3D printers and 3D scanners, I'll be able to make an exact reproduction of an Aston Martin”, as if that's a perfectly reasonable assumption. But I don't think it is. Upon reflection – thanks in part to these questions – I don't believe that we ever will be able to make an *exact* reproduction of something like an Aston Martin (or even of a spoon, come to that) using 3D scanning and printing. What we will be able to do is to make a copy that is as close to an exact reproduction as you like – depending on how much money you want to spend (and obviously the closer you get, the more it costs.) Remember: these are analogue, not digital, copies.

I think the implications of this subtle distinction become clear if we consider the case of an aeroplane – let's say the rather impressive lump of metal et al. that is the Airbus A380. How good would the copy have to be before most people would be happy to fly in it? I suggest that the tolerances would have to be insanely good (and hence insanely expensive to produce) before people considered the idea. The thing is, what matters about the aeroplanes we use are not so much how they are designed, but who has tested and approved the thing. We want pretty cast-iron assurances that the machine we are about to entrust our lives to is as safe as technology – and the relevant authorities that are responsible for checking that technology - can make it.

The same is true about the Aston Martin: before buying a copy of such a machine, you'd really want to know that it has been tested as thoroughly as the original, and found to be just as safe. The cost of doing that is pretty significant, so the price of any such tested copy would probably be surprisingly close to the price of the original machine. That assumes, of course, that people buy such machine through legal channels. If copying were forced underground – by Draconian legislation of the kind we've seen in the digital world recently – there are unlikely to be any guarantees about safety (or rather, any that were given would probably be worthless.) This is a strong argument why such copying should *not* be made illegal.

This is also makes clear why the first question above is, indeed, related to the last. Making a copy of an analogue object is no different from producing a counterfeit version using traditional means – just cheaper and much, much simpler. It also hints at what the problem with counterfeit objects is: not their existence, but their pedigree. When you buy an original, you buy also its origin and the implicit guarantee that represents. When you buy a counterfeit, you know nothing about its provenance. That may not seem so much of a problem for handbags, say, but it certainly is for medicines or aeroplanes, for example.

So, to re-iterate my reply to the questions posed, I think it's fine making copies in the way described; I also think that such copies will, inevitably, be made, because 3D printers will become much cheaper, and much better. Legislating against their use to produce copies is pointless, because it will simply drive such production underground or offshore. What will be crucial – as it is in combating certain types of counterfeiting – is the safety angle.

Buying a counterfeit Aston Martin should be allowed only if it has passed all the relevant safety and conformance tests. Telling people it is “wrong” to buy copies is unlikely to work, as the digital field has shown; telling them that it is dangerous to buy a copy probably will, at least if people are rational (it could be their families and friends that are injured as a result of malfunctions of counterfeit versions.)

What Aston Martin is really selling is not so much the design – which, after all, draws on all other designs that have gone before it, just as art draws on previous art – as a promise from the original company that it has undergone and passed all the relevant tests, and that it stands behind its workmanship. It is also selling its own pedigree: the fact that it has been making roadworthy cars for decades, which therefore come with a certain implicit promise that they are safe. The same is not true of copies of Aston Martins, produced by 3D scanners and printers.

If those making the copies were established companies and were prepared to put their models through all the relevant tests, then the situation is slightly different. Customer might choose to buy a copy, just as they choose to buy printer refills from third parties. But the original manufacturer will still be the only one able to claim authenticity. Moreover, they are more likely to produce innovative and exciting new models based on their original technology, since they ought to understand it better than anyone simply copying it. So there are still plenty of reasons why people would choose to buy slightly more expensive models from the original creator. Manufacturing of analogue objects does not die in the face of 3D printers, it just changes its marketing, with the emphasis shifting to issues of provenance, authenticity and reliability.

It's interesting to reflect on what the implications of this are for the world of digital content, where safety is hardly an issue. That may be true, but authenticity is still of value, which is one reason why people will want to buy from the artists, or their representatives, rather than from someone unknown online, even at a better price (like zero). This, of course, is also the model adopted for open source, which is freely available, but which people are willing to pay for to secure that guarantee of authenticity.

Analogue goods may never be truly abundant – most require too much energy to be made for that to be possible – but as 3D scanning and printing technologies improve, so the challenges for traditional manufacturers will move closer to that of content providers today. That gives us another good reason to get it right now when dealing with abundant digital goods and the business models they make possible – to minimise the pain of the coming transition in the world of manufacturing.

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