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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Future-proof

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Blog exclusive: When Bruce P. Keller of Debevoise & Plimpton asked Jonathan Zittrain to join him on the "Intellectual Property" panel at Practising Law Institute's "Communications Law in the Digital Age 2013" program this past November in New York, he was looking ahead.

Zittrain is a professor at Harvard Law School, at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and he wrote The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It. Keller said that Zittrain agreed to do the panel on condition that he wouldn't be asked again for 10 years, so Keller asked Zittrain to provide a glimpse into the future that might help us in the interim.

According to Zittrain, the future is 3D printers. These amazing machines produce or "print," as the name suggests, three-dimensional objects from digital models. On the "Thingiverse" site, you can find all kinds of "things," or digital files for your 3D printer, available to share. Obviously, such devices could be used to print Lego blocks or a 3D Nike swoosh logo, Zittrain noted.

(I have since learned that 3D printers are also being used to print stem cells that could lead to printable organs, and even artificial ears.)

Zittrain proposed three "blendable strategies" for preventing intellectual property problems that could result from the increasing use of such machines. First, he suggests keeping control over the technology, just as one used to have to take film to be developed (in just one day!) at a "Fotomat" or similar facility. The printers with the highest fidelity would be taxed or structured so that they would only be found in the Fotomat equivalent.

We could also try to control the use of this technology. "Why not just make it so those printers have to be attached to the internet in order to function," Zittrain recommended. "They then download 'IP definitions files' just like you download virus update definition files for your machines, and it just compares it against files that have been tagged by an army of interns that are looking for Nike swooshes on places like Thingiverse, and if you download the swoosh and try to print it," it would be flagged by the content ID system and you'd get an error message.

Zittrain also imagines that business models could be adjusted so that content owners and 3D printing technology users could "come to peace." As an example, he cited Xbox's proposed "consumer detector," which would use Xbox Kinect sensors to determine how many people are in a room in case the license purchased is too limited. Apparently, this invention would allow Microsoft to charge more for content when there are more people watching it. This is a "private arrangement worked out by all parties," Zittrain remarked, adding that, however, one could always crawl under the furniture to avoid detection.

(This article from Betabeat.com calls this idea "creepy" and "frightening" and gee, this sounds like another whole blog post for another time.)

What happens when you can print out an entire gun? Zittrain queried. He told the PLI attendees that Cody Wilson attempted to do just this project, until Stratasys, the company from which Wilson leased the 3D printer, learned of his plan and took the printer back.

We would all hope for 3D printing to be innovative and open, but all sorts of possible misuses come to mind, so it is a "puzzle," Zittrain acknowledged.

Jennifer L. Pariser, senior vice president of litigation and anti-piracy at the Recording Industry Association of America, had a different take, suggesting that Zittrain is "mak[ing] fun of copy protection mechanisms, filters, automated processes, but ultimately what's bad about all of those things? I think the content-owning industries would have a lot less to complain about if [sites like file hosting service megaupload] just put filters in, but they refuse to do so, saying, 'no, you have to catch me after the fact.'"

"What's wrong with the presumptive filter as a general matter for copyright issues?" Pariser asked. "Yes, there will be false positives, but it deters millions of infringements that occur around the world."

Zittrain thinks it is an easier argument when there are whole copies of whole works at issue, such as in the megaupload example. But when, say, this PLI program is being streamed, and suddenly a mobile phone rings, playing the "Gangnam Style" song as a ringtone, one could see a little forbearance, Zittrain said, without it impacting the megaupload example.

Zittrain proposed that anti-counterfeiting measures already present in our technology, such as watermarks, and devices in color printers that detect the copying of currency, could be implemented to prevent the 3D printing of a large quantity of a consumer product, such as Lego blocks.

"Are there ways, thanks to all the new technologies, to reconfigure the business model so that you end up having almost everybody win by abundance?" Zittrain asked. "I know that sounds like pulling a unicorn out of a hat, but that is free TV. Broadcast was such that it was harder to meter … and therefore advertising within Nielsen ratings and such was a way to have the more people that watch your program, the better off you are as a broadcaster."

I think the professor is saying that there simply must be a way to turn "creepy" and "frightening" (and "I think everything should be free to everyone, so there") into a win-win. I like his optimism. If you'll pardon the pun, stay tuned. For most likely less than 10 years.

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