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Gary North on the 3D Printing Threat to Patent Law

I’ve pointed out many times that copyright is already largely unenforceable due to the Internet, torrenting, encryption—it’s easy to find copies of pirated books, music, movies, and as Cory Doctorow says, it’s never going to get harder to copy:

“It’s the twenty-first century. Copying stuff is never, ever going to get any harder than it is today …. Hard drives aren’t going to get bulkier, more expensive, or less capacious. Networks won’t get slower or harder to access. … Copying stuff is natural. It’s how we learn (copying our parents and the people around us). My first story, written when I was six, was an excited re-telling of Star Wars, which I’d just seen in the theater. Now that the Internet — the world’s most efficient copying machine — is pretty much everywhere, our copying instinct is just going to play out more and more.” Cory Doctorow on Giving Away Free E-Books and the Morality of “Copying”, (archived comments

In other words, technology is helping us to evade evil copyright law, which is a good thing.

I’ve noted before that I hope something similar happens with patent law once 3D printing becomes mature enough. It will allow people to produce whatever objects they want, and easily get around any patents. 3D printing will make patent law very difficult to enforce. (I mention this in various talks, e.g. KOL231 | Let’s Talk Ethereum—Libertarianism, Anarcho-Capitalism & Blockchains; KOL346 | Copyright and Satoshi’s Legacy: The Tatiana Show, with Tatiana Moroz; KOL320 | Stephan Livera Podcast # 249–Bitcoin Patents & Open Crypto Alliance; KOL303 | Free Thought Project Podcast: IP vs. Innovation and Liberty; KOL289 | Scottish Liberty Podcast: Discussing the Mossoff-Sammeroff IP Debate, Take 2: A Sober Conversation…; and KOL253 | Berkeley Law Federalist Society: A Libertarian’s Case Against Intellectual Property. See also The IP War on 3D Printing Begins.)

I see now that Gary North has written something similar. See below. (Incidentally, he also has written about the death of copyrights: see Goodbye, Copyright. Farewell, Tenured Guilds (Feb. 15, 2016). He is somewhat confused on IP. In this piece, Chapter 39: Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks (Feb. 12, 2020), he indicates that protection of ideas—copyright and patent—are not consistent with biblical principles. He seems to oppose patent and copyright. But he is for trademark and apparently defamation law as well, which is a type of IP. So he is not against all IP, but at least, he seems to oppose the two worst types. See also Copyrights, Patents, and Ownership (Dec. 4, 2017), expressing skepticism about patent and copyright.

[Update: see When Patents Attack 3D Printing: The HangPrinter Is In Peril]

[Update: See also the Joshua M. Pearce, “An Open Source Preemptive Strike in the Coming War Over The Freedom to Make Your Own Products,” in Cosmo-Local Reader (2021):

“The relatively sudden widespread attention2,3 of the concept of distributed manufacturing with 3-D printing is largely due to the development of open-source 3-D printers. One that could make its own parts4,5, radically increased innovation rates and shrunk the costs of 3-D printers. Proprietary 3-D printers prior had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and the least expensive sold for $20,000. Today an open source 3-D printer costs $160 and dozens of 3-D printers from different companies cost under $200. Several studies showed consumers could easily profit by 3-D printing their own products (even if the printers cost more than $1000).6 The number of open source designs people can make profitably for themselves is growing exponentially.7 In 2020 there are over 2.5 million 3-D printable product designs.8 As Scott Grunewald of 3D Print pointed out “the ability to fabricate just about anything at home without the need of mass production is virtually inevitable. This ability to circumvent traditional manufacturing will essentially decimate current intellectual property (IP) law and grant consumers more freedom than ever before.”9 This on the whole will benefit innovation as there is a substantial literature that argues intellectual property in general, and the patent system in particular, actually stifles innovation. 10, 11, 12, 13 ,14, 15, 16, 17, 18,19,20,21,22 Microsoft’s Bill Gates perhaps best summarizes the risks of IP: “[i]f people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today…A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose.”23 Broad patenting of basic ideas in a field halts major innovation and technical progress for 20 years. “But that doesn’t mean that IP lawyers or overly aggressive capitalists will pack it up and get new jobs, they will simply shift their focus on to something else that can still be patented and controlled–like 3-D printing materials.”24″]

3D Printers vs. Patents

Gary North – September 10, 2016

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We know about 3D printing. It is in its primitive phase.

Think about this technology 30 years from now. Of course, your guess will look silly in retrospect — primitive.

People invent things. They apply for patents. Governments issue them. They grant a monopoly of manufacture for about 15 years. The inventor can license his invention and collect royalty payments.

Patent law works because it is enforceable. A manufacturer has a facility. It is in a location. If it produces goods based on designs that belong to someone else, the owner of the counterfeiting operation can be fined or sued by the owner.

What happens when the tools used to manufacture items are owned by individuals? They don’t sell what they produce. They use it. There is no trail of money to trace buyers to a single manufacturer.

How does an inventor sue 10,000 manufacturers?

He has a schematic. That is the basis of his patent. The schematic is available to the public. It just cannot legally be used.

So, someone with a web server in a tiny nation obtains a domain name in that nation. The United Nations is now in charge. This person can post a schematic online. Google can find it.

What happens when the schematic is a digital code that can be used to produce the item on a 3D printer anywhere on earth?

Maybe the inventor can hire lawyers to get the schematic removed from a server in an island nation. But at what price? Maybe it gets removed from the server. How long will it take for someone in another nation to post the same schematic?

This will be digital whack-a-mole.

For mass produced goods in factories, patents may be enforceable at some price. But 3D printers will do an end run around factories. They will allow customized versions of items that today can only be produced by factories. This is understood in theory today, but it has not yet shaped patent law. There is not a sufficient economic threat to factories from 3D printing. In 30 years, this will no longer be the case.

Think ahead 50 years. Think ahead 90 years.

Patent law is like copyright law. It is limited. It rests on the physical production of goods in specific locations. Specific locations are in specific legal jurisdictions. It also rests on retail sales in specific locations. Neither limitation will be the case with widespread 3D printing.

The enforcement of intellectual property rests on today’s array of prices. It is expensive to become a counterfeiter. You must have specialized skills. You must have detailed knowledge of markets. You must be a skilled person in concealment. None of this will be true in 30 years.

Here is the fundamental economic law: “When the price falls, more is demanded.” When the price of becoming a legally immune counterfeiter falls, there will be lots more counterfeiters.

Patent law will become increasingly unenforceable as 3D printing develops. Economic theory will have to adjust to these new conditions.

The modern world of mass production began with the expiration of James Watt’s patents on his steam engine design. Before expiration, steam technology did not spread far and wide. It did after the patents expired. We are going to see something comparable when 3D printing becomes so commonplace that middle class households have several printers.

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To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.