Free Software Foundation Certifies 3D Printer -- And Why That Matters
from the I'm-sorry,-Dave,-I'm-afraid-I-can't-do-that dept
Last week Mike wrote about a new patent from Intellectual Ventures that seeks to assert ownership of the idea of DRM for 3D printing. The article in Technology Review that Techdirt linked to explains how things would work:
"You load a file into your printer, then your printer checks to make sure it has the rights to make the object, to make it out of what material, how many times, and so on," says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at the nonprofit Public Knowledge, who reviewed the patent at the request of Technology Review. "It’s a very broad patent."
That's a pretty obvious approach, which any halfway competent engineer would come up with, so it's hard to see how it was ever granted a patent. But leaving aside this familiar problem with the patent system, there's an important issue skated over in the above explanation. It assumes that the printer has the power to disobey you -- that is, to refuse to print out an object that you want, because of the DRM in the file describing it, or because it doesn't have DRM at all. This parallels the situation for computers, where DRM is based on the assumption that your computer is not fully under your control, and has the ability to ignore your commands. That's one of the reasons why free software is so important: it is predicated on the idea that the user is always in control.
Against the background of the new 3D-printing patent, this announcement from the Free Software Foundation (FSF) that it has recently certified a 3D printer made by Aleph Objects as "respecting the user's freedom", takes on a particular significance:
The Free Software Foundation (FSF) today awarded its first Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification to the LulzBot AO-100 3D Printer sold by Aleph Objects, Inc. The RYF certification mark means that the product meets the FSF's standards in regard to users' freedom, control over the product, and privacy.
Here are the FSF's criteria for making the award:
The desire to own a computer or device and have full control over it, to know that you are not being spied on or tracked, to run any software you wish without asking permission, and to share with friends without worrying about Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) -- these are the desires of millions of people who care about the future of technology and our society. Unfortunately, hardware manufacturers have until now relied on close cooperation with proprietary software companies that demanded control over their users. As citizens and their customers, we need to promote our desires for a new class of hardware -- hardware that anyone can support because it respects your freedom.
That is, in making the award, the FSF has established that the LulzBot remains fully under the user's control.
Until now, that hasn't been an issue -- there's no practical way to stop someone from simply downloading a file and then printing it out on a compatible 3D printer. But the patent from Intellectual Ventures is the first step towards a time when users of 3D printers will be confronted with issues of control in exactly the same way that computer users are today.
Once 3D printing becomes more widespread, we can certainly expect pressure from manufacturers to bring in laws against unauthorized copying of physical objects and circumvention of 3D DRM schemes, just as the copyright industries have pushed for ever-harsher laws against file sharing. They may even try to get open hardware systems like the LulzBot made illegal on the grounds that the user is fully in control – just as media companies would doubtless love to make computers running free software illegal. That's a battle they lost, largely because free software existed long before digital media files were sold to consumers. We may not be so lucky next time.