AI: The Future of Piracy

As 3D Printers become more accessible and able to print with higher fidelity, a new field of piracy is becomming possible. As software and hardware improve, we may soon reach a point where objects can be copied and printed in high enough quality that they would be visually indistinguishable from the original.

What would the impact of object piracy be on our society? Who stands to benefit from freely replicable objects? Who will most be harmed by it?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. Other than expanding the number of industries this changes nothing. It’s still digital piracy and therefore the only loss is a potential sale.

    Whether you are down loading an MP3 file and burning a disk or downloading an autocad file and printing a sculpture or a part for your car. You are still only stealing a copy of information.

    The one way that this is different is that I could create my own file to make a part for say my refrigerator. The part costs $60 to buy from a store but I measure off of the original and print my own.

    Is that theft?

    How about if I share that file with others?

    We are not buying parts from the manufacturer, we are making them ourselves from a CNC file created from my own measurements.

    Isn’t that more like making a cover of a song and sending that to your friends?

  2. Well, having used a 3-d printer, I can tell you that it ain’t here yet. The current materials that can be printed are somewhat limited still, they include plastic, alumide, bronze, stainless steel, and glass. But other than plastic, those materials are only possible with expensive kilns and equiptment.

    And right now, its really expensive still! Stainless steel costs $10 per cubic centimeter of material. These costs will fall, but even so, its not as though a person on the street will be able to copy and share objects like they can share songs.

    The people who will benefit will be artists. After all, normal people won’t be buying 3-d printers. Like expensive printers, their market will be to businesses, designers, and hobbyists. The demand will never be enough to bring down the price to where there’s one in every home.

    Will piracy exist? Yeah, probably, but like the piracy of today it will exist on the margins. Neither the printing press, the copier, the color printer, nor the internet has ended printing and publishing. New technology just makes things different, usually not better or worse.

  3. @PrimevilKneivel – I agree that if you’re taking your own measurements and recreating the things on your own that’s not really piracy or theft, unless you’re trying to sell the knockoffs, that becomes a different problem.

    What happens, though, when a computer can generate the models for you from a few 2d stills? This isn’t science fiction, there is already software that can do this reasonably well.

    @mrthumbtack – Can you not see a time when a decent 3d printer is a trivial expense? The sort of thing that can be a toy for any tech head?

    Also, piracy exists in the margins? Where do you live?

  4. I think as companies realize the full extent of how software and digital media will permeate the world they will get more serious about protecting against piracy.

    Unfortunately for them, they have had leaders who see digital media as a threat and not an opportunity and so they have not fully embraced the changes.

    This can be seen most clearly right now with E-books. There are still publisher refusing to sell their books as eBooks as well as writing articles about how the eBook will be the death of authors.

    As usual with progress, you either embrace it as an opportunity or you get left behind and wind up looking like a fool.

  5. @Ryan- Yeah, I totally can, but I think like regular 2-d printers, its still going to be an investment to get a good one. I just don’t think they’ll ever be enough demand to make buying a 3-d printer ‘trivial’. Maybe we’re just defining trivial differently, however. I definitely see them coming down in price, but I still expect them to be in the price range of a decent power tool.

    And yeah, maybe on the margins is not so much accurate. I was thinking of the guys selling bootleg prints or counterfeit DVDs on the street corner. If you look anywhere online though, absolutely, intellectual property theft is rampant.

    What I would note though, is that just because printers are widely available, everyone isn’t printing out illegal copies of art to hang on their walls.

  6. @mrthumbtack, it’s funny that you mention people not printing off art. It’s certainly accessible and I know people that have both collections of images and high end printers.

    I wonder if the fact that high quality paper and ink have an associated cost, albeit a small one, is enough of a deterrent to stop people.

  7. If you look at how Adobe Photoshop won’t let you print or work on scans of banknotes at 1:1 scale, I would be unsurprised if there were attempts, or at least lobbying for regulations, or patent portfolio control of basic processes, to set domestic 3d printers to cross check against registered object libraries online.

    The industries that prosper will be ones that realise they can sell a program to make a spare part more cheaply than they can make / warehouse / distribute the actual thing, but it’ll probably require a company to offer an end-to-end turnkey solution from the consumer’s perspective. Something like Apple’s music model combined with the inkjet printer market.

    @Ryan the fine art photography world has more or less ignored, or at least hoped noone has noticed, the philosophical ramifications of the medium moving to bureaux produced manufacture-perfect digital (inkjet) prints, rather than photosensitive unique exposure on paper. It will be interesting to see what the effect on editioned sculpture will be. A bronze, even made in an edition is basically a unique handworked object due to the work needed in finishing. 3d printed sculpture, getting right into the Franklin Mint “manufactured collectable” world there.

  8. @mattg, I suppose that franklin mint type collectibles are going to be likely candidates for piracy.

    Things like statuettes are right up a 3d printer’s alley, assuming they can improve their color and texture output. They’re small enough to be done as one part. They have enough exposure and appeal that there will be people willing to get fakes just because they look good. Also, the price tends to be high enough to be prohibitive to people that seriously want them.

    Also, with a dedicated audience, there are likely people that will be willing to create and share the models online, much like manga enthusiasts scan, translate and share foreign comics.

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