A division of Intellectual Ventures, the IP-holding company founded by Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former CTO, has been granted a patent on a system for introducing digital rights management (DRM) controls to 3D printing.
Under the system described in the patent, files containing plans for printed objects would be encased in a digital envelope that would check if the original designer had either given permission for the plans to be used or been paid for their product. Software to handle this would be embedded in 3D printers to make sure they couldn't produce unauthorized copies.
While the 3D-printing industry is still in its infancy, the patent highlights one of the major concerns about the technology for commercial manufacturers. It's likely that in the years to come, not only plastic items, but also guns, robots and even human tissues will be printed using such systems, and the technology could enable piracy on a whole new scale.
Already the Pirate Bay is hosting 3D printable files, and in March the Open Source Hardware Association was founded to promote designs that anyone can print and use. The British RepRap open source 3D printer is even designed so that it can reproduce all of the parts needed to build another printer.
Myhrvold's patent could throw a spanner into what is still largely an open source movement, particularly as its language is broad enough to cover not just printing, but also "painting, engraving and/or tattooing by the manufacturing machine."
It's true that there's no requirement for 3D printer manufacturers to use Myhrvold's DRM technology – yet. Having seen the lengths the DRM industry has gone to to try and get its systems built into new technology, it's not outside the realm of possibility that some will sue to ensure printers are built to protect patented designs. ®
On the same day that Intellectual Ventures got its patent, the Free Software Foundation awarded the LulzBot AO-100 3D Printer sold by Aleph Objects its first Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification.
"The desire to own a computer or device and have full control over it, to know that you are not being spied on or tracked, to run any software you wish without asking permission, and to share with friends without worrying about Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) — these are the desires of millions of people who care about the future of technology and our society," it said in a statement.
"Unfortunately, hardware manufacturers have until now relied on close cooperation with proprietary software companies that demanded control over their users. As citizens and their customers, we need to promote our desires for a new class of hardware — hardware that anyone can support because it respects your freedom."