New service aims to tackle 3D printing piracy

A 3D-printed custom Makie Doll, currently on show at the Design Museum's exhibition, The Future is Here.

Once 3D printing becomes mainstream, manufacturing companies fear that open season will basically be declared for piracy of physical goods – just as digital downloads reshaped the music industry. Why purchase that fancy new iPhone case, after all, when you can just grab the digital CAD file for free from a website and print it at home for just the cost of some plastic filament?

California-based Authentise wants to allay those fears with a new service called SendShapes. The new service, launching in Alpha status in September, aims to accomplish for 3D printing what Netflix is doing for video streaming: Making it as easy and convenient as possible for users to purchase the right to print an official design for their favorite toy figurine, smartphone dock, or table saw guard.

Under Authentise's scheme, the creator of a 3D design would upload their file to the company's servers, then the end user would stream the uploaded file in pieces as needed by the 3D printer. That streamed file's good for one-time use only: Once the object is printed, all traces of it disappear on your PC. The approach is similar to how Netflix sends video files to your computer, according to MIT Technology Review.

Authentise hopes its approach will allay piracy fears and unlock the coming universe of 3D printing to makers of popular goods.

The ability to print 3D objects may seem limited right now, but there's no telling what crafty 3D printing geeks will be able to craft in their parent's basement over the coming years. One Texas man has already figured out how to print a firearm, and a New Zealand man is printing a full-size plastic replica of a 1961 series II Aston Martin DB4.

Consumers ask why they should pay for 3D designs

Authentise's approach indeed holds appeal. If someone needed to print out a new leg for an Ikea side table, it would be better to get the official 3D design rather than a random CAD drawing pulled off The Pirate Bay's Physibles section. Buying an official Elmo toy design for Christmas would also be easier than trying to create your own version.

But there's no getting around the fact that Authentise's approach is yet another form of digital rights management (DRM) that enforces restrictions on the user. If the model doesn't print out properly, for example, how easy is it to ask for a do over?

Authentise's approach is far more palatable than an idea cooked up by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft CTO and the co-founder of "patent troll firm" Intellectual Ventures. Myhrvold holds a patent for 3D printing DRM that would force you to get authorization from a remote server before being allowed to print off any item at home, according to ExtremeTech. It's the typical "all users are potential pirates, so let's treat them that way" approach seen in most use cases of DRM, but in 3D.

Authentise's solution should be far more palatable than having a virtual 3D printing cop embedded in your PC, but as with most forms of DRM, SendShapes is also just begging to be cracked.

But even if SendShapes isn't bulletproof, it doesn't mean it won't work overall. People have proven through the success of iTunes, Spotify, and Netflix that if a convenient commercial method is available for buying digital goods, it will beat piracy every time – assuming it charges a reasonable price for a quality product with few restrictions, that is.

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