Last Thursday I attended Public Knowledge’s 3D/DC event down near the Hill here in DC. From the description it clearly promised to continue the discussion started in Michael Weinberg’s excellent white paper which frames the potential pitfalls and challenges facing this new technology from the realm of intellectual monopoly.
Yesterday Michael posted a very quick recap of the event. I thought I’d take a few moments to expand on the bare skeletion he lays out, the two panels focusing first on the various actors in the space and on questions posed and possible paths forward in the policy space then the open demonstrations from makers, educators, innovators and established companies. (You can also look at the tweets from the event, I tried to do my best despite a decrepit laptop battery and an extremely finicky touch screen on my notaphone.)
In the meet the makers panel I was surprised to see representatives from established commercial players. That says more about my bias, being most interested in the open source projects trying to make 3D printing accessible and the small innovators focusing much more on the personal scale than even on the smallest scale industrial applications. The story told by 3D Systems and ExOne in some ways is more concerning despite their obvious commercial success. 3D Systems has been bogged down in frivolous lawsuit and both reported an easier time in markets abroad than locally. The conversation did not progress much beyond the frustration at lack of growth, however, to more specific concerns. I also found it hard to muster too much sympathy as these are the very companies that are entirely ignoring people like me who would like nothing more than to purchase a packaged, easy to use 3D printer to place on my desktop and just start making things. However, if those with the most means are struggling to progress, what hope is there for the mere enthusiasts?
The second panel, moderated by Nate Anderson from Ars Technica, in many ways book ended the policy space. Michael Weinberg continued to endorse a view of allowing norms to evolve first before considering any kind of regulation. Melba Kruman coauthored a report on personal fabrication and drew on some interesting ideas from it for models of regulation. She was intensely optimistic which I wanted to be infectious. In reality a lot of what she said I found a bit naive in terms of how notions like micro-patents might work out. Mostly she espoused a view that we, those concerned about open access, have learned hard lessons from bad policy like the DMCA. The problem with that is so have the incumbents hence further reaches like ACTA, TPP and COICA. If we want open access in this space, we have to actively defend it, as much as that runs the risk of having concerns over intellectual monopoly drive much of the discussion rather than allowing focus to sit on innovation. Striking the right balance in that defense will be no easy challenge as my own seeming contradictory views on regulation vs. formalities suggests.
In both panels there were tons of parallels drawn to the earliest days of personal computing. I think that is a constructive model. I am concerned though that the regulatory and policy clime has permanently shifted. As much as I agree with Weinberg’s hope we can watch where the grass goes bare before laying the sidewalk, I simply don’t think we can afford to. Those threatened by the vast potential of 3D fabrication at all scales are simply too savvy to sit still while we dial the right balance in between incentives for progress and open access for the public interest. I suppose the unasked question is what are the possible unintended consequences if we get the defense of the technology wrong?
I am very glad that Michael and Public Knowledge are actively pursuing these conversations, regardless of how my own personal cynicism may temper my view of the general optimism held by others.
During the open portion of the afternoon, where various demonstrations were running, I spent a lot of time talking to the hackers, the makers and the educators. In particular in talking to Mark Ganter of open3dp I learned that intellectual monopoly on printed objects is not the only policy concern here as much as that was the major focus of the day. There is an excellent post on the open3dp site that explains quite clearly how the dominant academic regime for monetizing research has largely stifled certain forms of 3D printing. Spending so much time listening to him detail how constrained his work has been undoubtedly further tempered my enthusiasm. It is a shame really as even as hobbled as the homebrew and education communities may be, they are still doing some staggeringly cool stuff.