U.S. Patent granted to prevent 3D printer piracy

There’s a little problem with the dream of someday 3D printing almost anything you want, whenever you want. And that is, intellectual property law. Ethically, you should not just duplicate the result of someone else’s hard work, unless they allow it. Legally, you are not allowed to do it. But physically, putting ethical and legal reasons aside, you will be able to print whatever you want (within technical limitations of course) with your own 3D printer.

Well, you can now. But maybe not in the future.

Just as the music industry cracked down on online digital music theft, you can assume that patent and copyright holders will do what they can to stem the same upcoming issue with 3D printers. But how? How can a 3D printer know that the instructions in the CAD file will produce something that is protected under Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)? Here’s how:

3d printer piracy patent

Nathan Myhrvold–who many call a “patent troll,” with the 40,000 or so patents his company Intellectual Ventures and its subsidiaries controls–has an idea, and he’s just been granted patent #8,286,236 for his protection method by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The patent, filed back in 2008, is titled a “Manufacturing control system” and it describes methods for managing “object production rights” (do I hear a new acronym OPR?). It works like Digital Rights Management system (DRM) does with digital music, movies and books–it you don’t have the license for it, you’re not going to be able to avail yourself of the goods. Similarly, if a 3D printer utilized this or a similar method, you will not be able to print your 3D object.

MIT’s Technology Review, in their article on this, has some quotes from Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at the nonprofit Public Knowledge, and author of It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw It Up, a 2010 white paper on how intellectual-property rights could harm the development of 3-D printing. He describes the patent this way:

“You load a file into your printer, then your printer checks to make sure it has the rights to make the object, to make it out of what material, how many times, and so on,” says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at the nonprofit Public Knowledge, who reviewed the patent at the request ofTechnology Review. “It’s a very broad patent.”


“This is an attempt to assert ownership over DRM for 3-D printing. It’s ‘Let’s use DRM to stop unauthorized copying of things.’ Nothing says manufacturers have to use DRM.”

That’s true, nothing does say the manufacturers have to use DRM (or OPR?). And I think at the home/hobby 3D printer end, printer makers seem to be too free-spirited a bunch of innovators to want to go along with something like this. But, the higher end printer makers may be more apt to participate, given their relationships with so many companies who are holders of IPR. Then there is the potential bad press associated with any illegality by customers with their printers (look how Stratasys seized a 3D printer leased to someone wanting to print a gun) that they would want to stay ahead of.

Weinberg went on to say that the patent is not simply related to 3D printing, but to other areas of manufacturing, such as using digital files in “extrusion, ejection, stamping, die casting, printing, painting, and tattooing and with materials that include “skin, textiles, edible substances, paper, and silicon printing.”

That is one broad patent, something the USPTO seems to specialize in lately.

I want to end with the best quote I’ve read on this subject today. Cory Dotorow at BoingBoing drew this hilarious conclusion:

But at least it’s patented by a notorious patent troll, which means that other jackasses who try to implement this stupid idea will find themselves tied up in absurd, wasteful lawsuits. It’s mutually assured dipshits.


I’m interested in what readers think about this patent. You can read the gory details here. Let me know in the comments below.

  • Cameron

    I think it’s too broad and mostly unnecessary. When I purchase a product, it’s not always for the idea of its creator, but mostly because of his/her fabrication abilities. A simple example could be a plastic tableware set that I designed myself; it’s possible that under this patent I could create a design that’s so similar to someone else’s that has IPR that my printer wouldn’t print it, even though I also had the idea. I have no desire to print products with trademarked brands for the purpose of resell, but I suppose some do? I don’t know, I feel that scammers would stick to the less commercial units though. I already feel that IP law creates more frivolous lawsuits than it does protect ideas, which I find a strange concept in this era. In capitalistic terms, I think in the future product and service quality will again be the primary drivers of profit over ideas. Ideas are spread and understood more quickly and easily than ever; people are becoming too educated to be told that they don’t understand how to make something once they’ve witnessed it. If I see a product that costs $30 and I have a real need for that product, and I’ve only got $20, I don’t accept that I should go home empty handed and pretend I don’t now possess the knowledge to solve my problem while staring at my 3D printer that could print that solution for $4.50. In short, with the existence of personal fabrication machines, I feel that strict and broad IP law is a demand that the masses turn off their brains.

    • Jeff

      From what I read of the patent, and what i know of DRM (it’s closest cousin so to speak), I don’t thinkt he printer would look at your “design” at all. It would look at the encoding on the CAD file. A digital encryption so to speak. If you didn’t have the right key to it (loaded to your printer) you couldn’t print it.

      So if you bought a copy of the file for gear #3 in a Hosit Thingamajig, you could print gear #3 how ever many times that file was licensed for (be it once or a dozen). If you gave it to your buddy without using it first, it might let him print it, depending on the licensing agreement. If you tried to copy said file, and let your buddy have it, he couldn’t print it. If you looked at a picture of that gear #3, or the physical part, drew it up in CAD and tried to print it, you wouldn’t have a problem getting it to print. Would it function? Maybe, depends on how good you were at making the tolerances right. You still might be in an area of legal trouble for makign said copy, but it would be the same legal trouble as if you had made it on your home mill or with a file and a hand saw.

      • Cameron

        I hope you’re right.

  • Jeff

    I don’t see a huge problem.

    Look at devices that have DRM protocols enabled now. You can still view / play non DRM materials on them. You just can’t copy DRM locked material.

    The way I see it playing out is that manufacturers and inventors who actually want to profit off of thier design will then have reason to make the CAD files available for a fee. Individuals who want them will decide if they are willing to pay the fee. Annoying? not really. The annoyng part will be if the file doesn’t print a usable (or quality) part and then the file is disabled until you pay for it again. I’m guessing to make the system work people who sell the files will have to incorporate some type of warranty policy so that you can get a code to print something again if the print gets screwed up. The huge advantage is that compnies will be more likely to enter into the feild if they can make money off of thier designs.

    Hobbiests will always produce free designs. Their quality will vary, and I see those free designs being like youtube video and free stories/books on the internet. Niether hanve been hurt by DRM licensing.