iTunes for 3D Printing

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While people are paying a lot of attention to the idea of 3D printed fire arms, they are missing what will undoubtedly have a larger impact as 3D printing takes off: intellectual property rights.

But startups are emerging to address this issue. We met the founders of Layer By Layer a couple of weeks ago at the  Inside 3D Printing conference in New York, and they have plans both near- and long-term to help.

Since Napster, the music and then film industries have struggled to control digital media. Despite enormous legal effort, through lobbying for legislation like the DMCA and a dubious strategy of suing their own customers, they have failed to contain piracy.

But at least the recording and movie industries had a notion of content separate from the delivery mechanism (i.e. a CD or DVD). It’s hard to say the same for a company like Lego. They make money selling bricks. Bricks aren’t a medium, they are the product.

So what happens when physical goods become content, with plans transmitted directly to customers who can 3D print the product at home? This isn’t a hypothetical question. Already today one could buy a 3D scanner, record the design of many common products, and 3D print a reasonable facsimile. It seems inevitable that the product companies of the world are going to go through the same growing pains as the music industry did starting a decade and a half ago. And in many ways they are even less prepared for the transition.

That’s where Layer By Layer comes in. They have just launched a new software platform called Teleport It 3D. Essentially they are offering a sort of DRM for 3D printed designs. The basic idea is that instead of downloading a CAD drawing of the part you want to print, their software speaks directly to your printer. The creator of a design sent through Teleport It 3D can control how many times it can be printed and for what period of time. The creator retains the control of the design, and the end-user never gets to see the files needed to create it.

But before you think they are merely helping designers preserve profits, they are also solving a very real impediment to the wide adoption of 3D printing by consumers. It’s theoretically possible to download a design from Thingiverse and hit print. But in practice it’s never that simple. The file you download needs to be sliced and prepared for your 3D printer, and hiccups are routine. That kind of tinkering is appealing to early adopters and maddening to the non-technical mass market. Teleport It 3D handles all that complexity, delivering a ready-to-print file directly to your printer (currently only MakerBot is supported).

The next step for Layer By Layer is to launch an online marketplace for securely sharing 3D printable products. The theory is that their protections will encourage designers to share better products, and that the ease of use will attract more consumers. Where Thingiverse is Napster, they want to be iTunes.

Photo credit: meetar on Thingiverse

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