What if the best way to steal something in the future is just to print it?
Fab theft refers to the use of digital scanning and 3D printing to replicate copyrighted designs or patented objects — and it is happening already. On the infamous platform, ‘The Pirate Bay’, there is now an entire new section known as ‘physibles’. Nevertheless, despite the moral panic about 3D printing, the real risk of fab theft is not 3D printed guns or TSA keys, but the sustainability of copyright in a world where everything is available on demand.
Consumer 3D printing technology is rapidly evolving to the point where it’s no longer just a curiosity for hobbyists. Better quality scanners combined with higher resolution printers and more durable feedstock, are for the first time making both the commercialization and the criminalization of 3D printed objects viable.
A few weeks ago researchers at the University of Buffalo found a way to hack a 3D printer by measuring ‘leaked’ energy and acoustic waves that emanate from printers. They managed to program a smartphone’s built-in sensors to measure electromagnetic energy and acoustic waves, and in so doing, guess the location of the print nozzle when in action.
The easy availability of fab theft tools means that we are on the brink of an impending clash between copyright and the future.
For brands, there is fuzzy distinction between fan engagement and fab theft. In February 2013, HBO sent a cease-and-desist letter to Fernando Sosa asking him to stop selling his 3D printed iPhone dock that he based on the Iron Throne from TV series, Game of Thrones. Even though Sosa had designed the 3D model himself, HBO claimed it owned the rights to all images that appeared on the show.
The toy manufacturer Hasbro adopted a rather different strategy. Noticing the unexpected growth in a subculture of consumers modifying My Little Pony toys, they announced a partnership with the 3D printing platform Shapeways to provide licenses for consumers wanting to create their own fan art.
The fab thieves of the future, however, are less likely to be teenage hackers and fanboys than commercial 3D printers with the scale and quality to rapidly copy and re-distribute designer and high value items.
Today the obvious point of attack are new product prototypes printed internally in R&D labs. Tomorrow, when goods themselves are ‘streamed’ to consumers for printing at home, brands will need to find a way of securing the digital files while in transit. Authentise for example, have launched 3D Design Stream, an API for 3D marketplaces that, like Netflix or Spotify, streams designs directly to buyers’ printers for a single use.
It does make you wonder, though. How will streaming rather than selling physical products change the business of manufacturing?