It was a breakthrough year for 3-D printing, a technology that could be as transformative this decade as the Internet was in the last one, creating thrilling new opportunities for both consumers and producers. As with all disruptive innovations, however, the benefits are not likely to come without controversy, and the disputes have already begun.
Three-dimensional printers, which mold objects out of wax or plastic polymers according to digital instructions, are getting more advanced -- and cheaper. With simple versions now selling for as little as $1,000, proponents predict the technology will usher in a new class of amateur "makers," enabling consumers to seize back the means of production from corporations, and bring renewed prosperity to U.S. manufacturing. But the printers are also raising the possibility that physical objects from toys to kitchen appliances to weapons will be as easy to copy and share as songs or movies.
This is already taking international copyright law into unknown territory. A British game company recently sent a cease-and-desist order to a 3-D printer owner who was making physical copies of objects from the popular board game Warhammer, and a designer in the Netherlands who recently printed a physical version of the famous "Penrose Triangle" optical illusion has sent a "takedown notice" to Thingiverse, an online repository of 3-D printer design codes, for sharing his design online for anyone to download for free. Further raising the stakes, the Pirate Bay -- the controversial Swedish file-sharing site that has been the target of lawsuits around the world -- announced this year that it is starting a new service to share 3-D printing designs.
The questions raised by 3-D printing go beyond copyright. How can it be made environmentally sustainable? (Plastic has to come from somewhere.) Can we control the distribution of designs for dangerous objects like guns and knives? Will 3-D printers kill manufacturing jobs? These printers are going from toys for techies to must-have consumer products. But before we can reproduce the latest Barbie, kitchen knife, or iPhone at home, some tricky moral and legal debates still need to be resolved. Makers, meet the lawyers.