3D printing and digital rights management

04 Aug 2015

Digital rights management has been a big issue for music, movies and other digital content. At the same time there have been discussions that content companies should change their business models, for example, offer music for free or at a low cost and make money from other products like fan items. 3D printing is the next challenge for digital rights management, and it can be even more complex to handle. Soon it will be possible to make free copies of all kinds of physical items.

Gartner estimated in 2013 that by 2018, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion per year in intellectual property globally. Most recently Hollywood studios have been worried that fans start to make their own copies from items in movies and replicas of official toys and fan products, and some fans have also started to sell design files. The internet has cut the prices and margins almost to zero in many things like news, information and music. Is 3D printing a similar revolution for physical items?

Now in some countries you must pay a kind of copyright fee, when you buy storage capacity, and the money is distributed e.g. to music copyright owners. So, should you in the future pay a copyright fee in the 3D printer price that is then distributed to the copyright owners? But who are the copyright owners of physical items? It can be basically any company that makes any physical products. This solution sounds impossible.

If we think music and movies, it is quite easy to tell if a file is a copy of the original record or movie. But this can be more complex with physical items. If you make an item based on what you see in a movie, is it a copy or your own version? Or if you make a spare part for your car, is it copying, or your solution to repair something? It is quite clear you cannot use a trademark without permission, but if you take nice Prada sunglasses and you make similar sunglasses or you make some of your ‘improvements’ and don’t print the Prada name, is it a copyright issue?

We have been worried how many factories in China and some other countries make counterfeit copies of millions of items. But if almost anyone can start to print almost any items, it will be a totally different scale of impact on the market. And it is always easier to restrict commercial sales of items, than if people make items for their own needs. What if people start to crowdsource design and then distribute these design files?

Some experts and companies see that this not as an issue, but an opportunity. Companies can also start to sell design files. For example, Source3 is a company that offers solutions to manage 3D printing copyrights and distribution. And definitely it can be an opportunity for a new business in some cases. At the same time we know very well that digital distribution is more complex to manage absolutely, harder to make high margins and requires totally new competencies compared to the manufacturing business.

There are more questions than answers with copying and copyrights for 3D printing. We start to envision an era that digital copyright management is relevant to physical products too. It probably raises requirements for some new legislation. But in the end it will decisively change the physical product and manufacturing businesses. One solution can be services like Source3 or a solution can be “manufacturing as a service” like the German Industry 4.0 concept (see Industry 4.0 - Another type of revolution). But one thing is sure; digitization has an impact on all industries.

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