Many people think 3-D printing could help spark a manufacturing renaissance in the U.S. — even President Obama highlighted this technology in his State of the Union address last week.
But as 3-D printers and 3-D scanners get cheaper, this nascent industry could be roiled by battles over intellectual property.
Not so long ago, a good 3-D scanner that could create accurate digital models of objects in the real world cost more than $10,000. Then, Microsoft released the Kinect — the video game controller that allows you to play games by just waving your hands.
"But it turned out that the Kinect was actually much more than that — it was a 3-D camera but one-hundredth of the price," says Nicolas Burrus, co-founder of manctl, a 3-D scanning company.
Burrus was working on computer vision research at a university in Spain when the video-game system technology came out. "We knew that this could change everything because anyone could just start scanning," he says.
His company makes software that turns the Kinect into a cheap, high-quality 3-D scanner, so we conducted a little experiment.
NPR Action Figures
We decided to scan NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer (who helped me record Burrus in Spain, and ended up as the project's guinea pig).
Holding a Kinect, Burrus scanned Lauren. It collected 3-D data and images, and his software began to stitch everything together into a detailed 3-D model of Lauren — right in front of her eyes.
"Oh, gosh, I should fix my hair — this is why I do radio," Lauren said, laughing.
In just a few minutes the scan was complete. Burrus emailed the file, and the next day — almost 6,000 miles away — I walked into TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif., borrowed its 3-D printer, and NPR's very first action figure was produced.
The printer traces the shape's outline, applying a layer of hot plastic just a few microns thick. Another coat is added. Slowly, Lauren emerges.
Printing a Susan Stamberg, Nina Totenberg or Guy Raz action figure wouldn't be so hard, either.
Creating these characters would be dead simple. The scanning and printing technology is designed for consumers, and it's getting much cheaper.
The Makerbot 3-D printer we used cost less than $2,000. And the maker of Kinect's 3-D camera just unveiled a new version tiny enough to go in an iPad.
Clay Lambert, who runs the Menlo Park TechShop, says making perfect copies of physical items has never been easier.
"We are at the point now with physical objects that we were at with MP3s a decade ago. ... We are now at that point with stuff. I think it's fantastic," Lambert says.
I caught up with Makerbot founder Bre Pettis at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. He says this type of technology will keep advancing, and everyone will have a chance to experience the phenomenon.
"We are going to see more and more applications built that are going to allow you — people who don't necessarily know how to do digital design — to be empowered to make the things that they want, just the way they want them," he says.
When asked about digital copyright and digital piracy bleeding into the material world, he didn't answer.
But Lambert says intellectual property could be a big problem. "It is a huge question. It really is," he says.
Makerbot runs a website called Thingiverse where people can share their digital designs for 3-D printers. It turns out a lot of the items people are designing, copying and printing on Thingiverse — like Star Wars action figures or Pixar's famous lamp — are actually protected by copyright.
One of the more popular things on the site is a bust of Yoda, and some designers on Thingiverse are doing amazing things with it. Someone turned it into a vase for flowers, another used math (fractals) to hollow it out in an incredibly beautiful, illegal way.
"Yoda is not just something we can copy and duplicate — Yoda is protected by copyright," says Michael Weinberg, a lawyer at Public Knowledge, a group that advocates for an open Internet.
He recently wrote a couple of white papers on 3-D printing, copying and the law. He says even when designers take an object like that and change it, it's still legally protected.
"That at least triggers a copyright analysis," he says, "so the question is sort of twofold."
The first question that arises is copyright violation, Weinberg says. Someone might be worried about copyright infringement when creating some incredible Yoda bust. But the real question is how the owners, Lucasfilm and Disney, react to that, he adds.
So far, the two companies haven't done anything. But the era of benign neglect on Thingiverse may be coming to an end.
'Sue The Genie Back Into The Bottle'
Recently, Moulinsart, which owns the rights to the cartoon Tintin, served Thingiverse with a Millennium Digital Copyright Act takedown notice. The company insisted that the site remove printing designs of Tintin's cartoon moon rocket.
Weinberg says Moulinsart was well within its legal rights, but he thinks the move was a mistake. People printing out copies of Tintin's rocket were the company's mega-fans, he says. Instead of attacking them, Weinberg adds, the company would have been better off selling digital designs to print out Tintin himself.
Moulinsart didn't respond to our request for comment.
"The technology is coming whether we like it or not," Weinberg says. "And so, as a CEO of one of these companies, you can spend a lot of time and money trying to sue it out of existence — and sue the genie back into the bottle — or you can spend that same time and money and apply it toward finding a way to use the technology to your advantage."
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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
I'm Linda Wertheimer.
The buzz around 3-D printing seems to be getting louder. Industry experts say it could help spark a manufacturing renaissance in the U.S. Even President Obama highlighted the technology last week in his State of the Union address.
(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
WERTHEIMER: But as NPR's Steve Henn reports, as 3-D printers and 3-D scanners get cheaper, this nascent industry could be roiled by battles over intellectual property.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Not so long ago, a good 3-D scanner that could create accurate digital models of objects in the real world cost more than $10,000. Then, Microsoft released the Kinect. This video game controller was built to allow you to play games just by waving your hands.
NICOLAS BURRUS: But it turned out that a Kinect was actually much more than that. It was 3-D camera, but one-hundredth of the price.
HENN: When it came out, Nicolas Burrus was working on computer vision research at a university in Spain. But pretty quickly, he founded a company to make software that turns the Kinect into a cheap, high-quality 3-D scanner.
BURRUS: We knew this could change everything, because anyone could start scanning.
HENN: So last week, I asked him to show me how it worked.
BURRUS: I think the best thing would be to try to scan Lauren. She's not moving too much.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: OK.
HENN: That's Lauren Frayer, my NPR colleague in Spain. She was helping me out by recording my interview with Burrus in Madrid, but she ended up becoming his guinea pig.
FRAYER: Is this a good pose?
HENN: Soon, Nicolas Burrus was walking around Lauren, holding a Kinect scanner.
FRAYER: So I'm going to stay absolutely still...
FRAYER: ...and not even talk.
HENN: As he walked, the camera collected 3-D data and images of Lauren. His software began to stitch it together into a detailed 3-D model, right in front of her eyes.
BURRUS: So here you see...
FRAYER: Oh, my gosh. Should I fix hair?
HENN: In minutes, the scan's done. Burrus emailed me the file.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRINTER)
HENN: And the next day, nearly 6,000 miles away, I walked into a tech shop in Menlo Park, California, borrowed their 3-D printer and printed out what I think is NPR's very first action figure.
Justin Leathern helped me get the print going.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRINTER)
HENN: I was hoping that they would scan her holding a microphone, but no such luck.
JUSTIN LEATHERN: That's unfortunate.
HENN: The printer traces the outline of Lauren's shape, laying down a layer of hot plastic just a few microns thick. Then it does it again. Slowly, Lauren emerges. And as I'm watching, I'm thinking maybe NPR should market an entire line of action figures.
LEATHERN: Absolutely. Why not?
HENN: It would be dead simple. All of this technology - from the scanners, to the printers - is designed for consumers, and it's getting much, much cheaper. The MakerBot printer we're using cost less that $2,000. And 3-D scanners are coming out soon that will be small enough to build into smartphones.
Clay Lambert runs the Menlo Park tech shop. He says making perfect copies of physical stuff has never been easier.
CLAY LAMBERT: We're at the point now with physical objects that we were at with MP3s a decade ago, right, or even 15, 18 years ago. We're now at that point with stuff. I think it's fantastic.
HENN: And anywhere makers and geeks congregate, excitement is building. I ran into Bre Pettis last month at CES. Pettis founded MakerBot, which manufactures these low-cost 3-D printers.
BRE PETTIS: We're going to see more and more applications built that are going to allow people to be empowered to make the things that they want, just the way they want them.
HENN: Do you hear from other companies, though, that are worried about the problems with digital copyright and digital piracy sort of bleeding into the material world?
Pettis simply refused to answer the question. He stood there in front of the mic, silent.
So you haven't heard that expressed anywhere? You've never heard it?
But back at the tech shop in Menlo Park, Clay Lambert says intellectual property could become a big problem.
LAMBERT: It's a huge question. It really is.
HENN: MakerBot runs a website called Thingiverse, where people can share their digital designs for 3-D printers. And it turns out a lot of the stuff people are designing, copying and printing off of Thingiverse - things like "Star Wars" action figures and Pixar's famous lamp - they're actually protected by copyright.
MICHAEL WEINBERG: Yoda is not something that we can just copy and duplicate. Yoda is protected by copyright.
HENN: Mark Weinberg's a lawyer at a group called Public Knowledge. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Weinberg's first name is Michael, not Mark.] Recently, he's written two white papers on 3-D printing, intellectual property and the law. He says even when designers take a copyrighted object - like a bust of Yoda - and tweak it, it's still legally protected.
WEINBERG: Yes. But almost the more interesting question is: How does Lucasfilm and Disney react to that?
HENN: So far, they haven't done anything, but the era of big companies treating 3-D printing with benign neglect may be coming to an end.
Recently, Moulinsart - which owns the rights to the cartoon "Tintin" - served Thingiverse with a digital takedown notice. The company insisted the site remove several designs for printing out a model of Tintin's cartoon moon rocket. Weinberg says, legally, Moulinsart was well within its legal rights, but he thinks the move was a mistake.
WEINBERG: The technology is coming, whether you like it or not. And as a CEO of one of these companies, you can spend a lot of time and money trying to sue it out of existence and sue the genie back into the bottle. Or you can spend that same time and money and apply it towards finding a way to use the technology to your advantage.
HENN: Weinberg says the kind of people who build and print 3-D models of Tintin's rocket are the company's super-fans. So, he says instead of attacking them, Moulinsart would be better off selling them digital designs to print - maybe even one for Tintin himself. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.