The Death of (Analogue) Patents

In a post last week, I wrote about the current obsession with “IP”, and noted some moves to make it more suitable for the digital age. In this post, I want to look at the other main class of “IP”, patents. Surprisingly,...


In a post last week, I wrote about the current obsession with "IP", and noted some moves to make it more suitable for the digital age. In this post, I want to look at the other main class of "IP", patents. Surprisingly, perhaps, I won't be talking about software patents, not least because I've written plenty on the topic. Instead, I want to consider patents on analogue – that is, purely physical – objects.

This flows from a meeting I attended a few weeks back, put on by those nice people at Nesta, called "Personal Manufacturing: The new look entrepreneur?" The speakers were Haydn A. Insley, Manager at Fab Lab Manchester; Alice Taylor, founder of start-up Makieworld; and Adrian Bowyer (videos of their contributions plus the Q&A that followed are available from Nesta's event page.) It was mainly for the last of these that I went along, although the other two had plenty of fascinating things to say on the subject of personal manufacturing.

My particularly interest in Bowyer stems from the fact that he is the creator of the RepRap, a 3D printer that I wrote about on this blog last year.

It possesses two crucial qualities. First, the fact that it is completely open source – software and hardware – and secondly, that it is well on the way to being self replicating: that is, able to print itself. You don't have to be a mathematician to appreciate what that means in terms of allowing low-cost 3D printers to spread. And that has big implications for manufacturing, as Bowyer explained.

He contrasted his RepRap with a traditional injection moulding machine. Bowyer used the example of combs, and noted that the latter could make around 10,000 of these a day. The RepRap could copy (most of) its own parts in two days, and during that time might manage to make just one comb.

But by copying itself and using the replicated machines to make more RepRaps together with that lonely comb, the 3D printers collectively would outpace the traditional injection moulding machine in just 19 days (Bowyer also pointed out that after a month everyone on the planet would have their own RepRap machine – and comb....)

So that's a glimpse at the future of personal manufacturing, which is about scaling. The other fascinating aspect of RepRap involves making copies of analogue objects. There's a site dedicated to doing just that for original 3D artefacts created from digital files. It's called Thingiverse, and many of its files use the GNU GPL or Creative Commons licences.

But what about copies of pre-existing objects? That's already possible to a certain extent, using a 3D scanner to produce a digital file. It's true that only a limited number of materials can be printed using RepRap and similar systems, but the range is being expanded all the time. It's not unreasonable to assume that over time it will be possible to scan and print more and more everyday objects.

One of the surprising things that I learned from Bowyer during his talk was that there aren't any problems from a patent point of view, with one caveat:

as long as you're not making money, in the whole of Europe, anyone can make any patented object for their own use without paying royalties – not so in America.

So in Europe, in those circumstances, patents seem to be moot. That suggests the concerns raised in an earlier Computerworld UK article only really apply to the US, at least for non-commercial use.

So expect to see lots of lobbying from manufacturers in Europe about the "threat" that such 3D printers represent to their businesses, just as the content industries have been sowing FUD about the "threat" of digital copying, despite the fact that there is plenty of evidence that non-commercial copying actually increases their sales (something I will be exploring in more detail in a future post).

But in a sense, the legal situation is irrelevant. Just as vast numbers of people routinely copy digital files – because it's easy, and because they have an innate sense that sharing is a natural thing to do in a world of digital abundance – so, I suspect, once those RepRaps start churning out copies of themselves, and people start making copies of analogue objects, there will be little that can be done to stop them sharing their digital files that enable others to do the same.

As Bowyer writes in an essay entitled "Why Accountants are Dull and Guitarists are Glamorous – The End of Intellectual Property", which I've quoted elsewhere, but which sums things up so well:

copyright is sublimating away under the twin fires of ease-of-copying and people's desire to give their creations away rather than have them remain obscure. But what of patents? Copying an iPod is not nearly as easy as copying tunes into it.

However, 3D printing will completely replace vast swathes of conventional manufacturing processes as it becomes less costly. And what will really drive the cost through the floor is 3D printers that print 3D printers, like RepRap. Conventional manufacturing produces goods in an arithmetic progression. But a self-copying 3D printer produces goods – and itself – in a geometric progression. And, no matter how slow it is, any geometric progression overtakes every arithmetic progression, no matter how fast, eventually.

The self-copying 3D printer will be something cheap enough for individuals to own and be something they can copy for their friends. When everyone can print almost any device or machine the same will happen to the idea of patents as has happened to music copyright.

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