Tuesday, 29 April 2014

3D printing - thoughts on DRM and per copy licensing

Some interesting and thoughtful comments on yesterday's (yes, it really was, don't argue) post.

One common thread that came up was re DRM and licensing generally. Archduke Piccolo is right - it's the big companies that are afraid of copying technology, be it tape, CD, MP3, whatever. But, and it's a big but, history says they will, pretty much, fail to restrict it. They might succeed in restricting the misappropriation of their own designs by the application of sufficiently large amounts of legal clout, but... you know what? Designs are copyright, stealing them is illegal. There's more money to be gained in copying (say) Dark Side Of The Moon than one of my albums. Wargames isn't a big market.

More to the point, the genie is already out of the bottle. Most of the software that drives 3D printers uses open file formats, and quite a lot of it is open source. The actual design of a printer is open source - look at the RepRap, which is not only a free design, you built part of it using a mate's RepRap!

Yes, it's possible (and I personally might actually welcome it) that, for example, Apple could add a category to the iTunes store for '3D Designs', and write some drivers for common 3D devices (the iMaker?) that handed iTunes design files, and possibly even ensured that a per-print royalty made it back to the designer. Would that, from the point of view of a small wargames figure designer, or even a gamer with a 3D printer, actually be that bad[1]? It would certainly indicate that 3D had hit mass market.

There are already sites out there that act as a repository for 3D designs - Thingiverse for one (follow the See Also links on that page for others). There are also (as PatG points out), and this may also be an interesting avenue to explore, sites like Shapeways who will print stuff for you: which allows you the tradeoff of access to their bigger commercial printer with better resolution in return for paying them more than it would cost you (but again, economies of scale - they can set off the cost of their big printer against multiple customers' orders).

Carl from our club also asked about full-colour printing - looks like it's here. Admittedly, the device to the left is $330K, but it is a high-end large format beast built by the same folks who make one of the more popular hobbyist machines, and... it's only a matter of time. Moore's Law, remember?

Which leads me to one final (unless you all get me thinking again) observation which brings us back to the first post of these three.

It is only a matter of time.

I get a little bit tired of threads on places like TMP where people loudly protest 'but home 3D printing's stupidly expensive and too low resolution for wargames'.

Wake up!

It might still be pushing what anything but an enthusiastic and well-off hobbyist can afford, but there are already people using it for aircraft, starships and tanks (where you can get away with slightly less detail), and have been for a couple of years. There's a shared 3D MakerBot printer in my London office. Maplin will sell you one. Micro's Kickstarter has raised over $1M for a $250 printer.  My son's GCSE Industrial Design lab has one.

The resolution issue will go away sooner rather than later, because once people have cracked it with a high-end printer, making it work for a desktop one is just about economies of scale and improving the design.

I'm starting to get that feeling I got when I bought my first home computer, my first digital camera, my first mobile, my first scanner, my first inkjet printer. I've never been an early adopter of technology (except for the iPad!): when I buy stuff, it's usually a pretty good indicator it's hit the mainstream.

Cheap home 3D printing is coming, in fact it's pretty much here: Moore's Law, the patent expiry issue  and simple economies of scale say it is. The technology is not the problem - how we manage the sale and sharing of designs will be. Think (especially if you're a designer or manufacturer) how you want to be a part of it, because as soon as next year or the year after could be too late.

[1] Please note: this is not a forum for discussion of whether Apple, Microsoft, Google, or anyone else is or are evil.  I am well aware of the wide range of differing opinions on that score, and hold one myself. Commercial reality and wide-eyed evangelism don't always mix well :D


  1. Very true and thought provoking comments Mike. If I were running a miniatures company, I would be devoting time and money now to work out ways of staying ahead of the curve and developing business models that would allow me to actually benefit from 3D printing rather than be damaged by it. I can see a time pretty soon when we will be able to purchase code to, say, print off miniatures etc at home. The challenge for manufacturers will be finding ways of to try to protect their IP with encryption etc. I think designers can make this work for them, although I fear a bit more for the highly skilled mould makers out there.

  2. Per-copy licence fees had better be a whole lot less than the materials cost, or a significant number of users will say "to hell with it, I'll just use the generic soldiers off thingiverse". Much of the point of digital distribution, after all, is that copying is free, and non-DRM means multiple copies are avaliable (e.g for music I can stick it on my portable player, and on the main music archive, and make a backup). Trying to charge for copies that users make at their own expense will feel a lot like rent-seeking and I think the smart end of the market (which also means the people who'll be setting trends and expectations, until the printers come as part of a new system bundle in PC World) will reject it.

  3. Thanks for the three very interesting posts, Mike.
    I´ve been looking fro some distance the issue of 3D printing since a friend of mine launched his miniature wargaming company last year (Barrage Miniatures). He's using the printer to test the designs before launching the models commercially, but the printing speed (and relatively low resolution) makes the device totally unsuitable to produce the models on a large scale. I guess this is likely to improve over time, but right now is not very efficient as I said.

    Assuming we get a breakthroiugh (and lower costs for the hardware) I can agree that 3D is going to be game changer for the wargaming industry, although as usual is such early stage of development the "how" is yet unclear.

    I see your point on how to charge specially when you can make multiple copies out of one design. But being wargamers as they are, you'd probably would like to see your units with very different models and poses; and for these purposes digital edition can be relly good.

    I may foresee options like "blisters" with different models and even "army boxes" offereing a wide variety too. Or why not, as the recent trends with Victrix and the Perry's, digital sheets of multi-pose parts (wepons, bodies, arms, etc) to be printed and then glued to have almost infinite different models.

    1. For the multi-pose parts, why not "glue" them together on the vendor's web site and download the composite files so that the figures to be printed ready to play? (I'd say "download a program to do it", but then they'd make it closed-source and Windows-only so I'd have to write my own anyway.)

  4. One point that is rarely raised is how postal services will be affected by 3D printing. With the advent of email they lost considerable letter revenue and switched their focus to packages. The cost of posting same has increased substantially of late as they try to grow revenue in poor economic conditions. Mass-market 3D printing will remove the need to post many small items and local cottage industry production will bloom. Postal services would do well to consider the implications.


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