Any of you following the 3D print industry couldn’t help but see that an awful lot has happened in the courts and in the government with 3D printing, in particular regarding 3D-printed firearms. Cody Wilson was the first person to create a 3D printable gun and the plans for a 3D printable gun way back in 2013 or so. A big part of a documentary movie about 3D printing, Print the Legend, tells the early story of Cody and his 3D-printed gun which he put it out there and made it available for the world to download and print their own guns. Eventually, he was shut down by the government. Putting all the regulatory stuff aside, the bigger concern is the copyright issue. Tom delves into the topic of intellectual property and copyright violation in the 3D printing industry.
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3D Printed Guns: Fair Game Or A Slippery Slope?
I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room that we’ve taken a bit of a hiatus over this summer and now we’re back. We’re going to be back with several episodes a week as usual. I know a lot of you have written to us on social media and written in and commented on the website, “Are you guys okay? Are you coming back?” “Yes, we are.” It was not a planned hiatus, but things always tend to get so busy for us in the summer. Thank you for hanging in there and waiting for us to get things together and be ready for a new season of WTFFF.
3D Printed Firearms
There’s a lot going on in the 3D printing world. I’m sure any of you following the 3D print industry couldn’t help but see it. You couldn’t miss it. There was an awful lot that happened in the courts and in the government with 3D printing and in particular regarding 3D printed firearms. I want to talk about this but I’m also want to preface this by saying in no way am I or is this show taking a position one way or the other on the Second Amendment. This is not a Second Amendment discussion. 3D printed guns are what is in the news and why this is coming up but we’re not talking about the morality of or the pro or con or anything regarding the Second Amendment. To me, there are different, bigger picture issues that this brings up that are tremendously interesting and also very concerning that I want to talk about. Not that guns aren’t a serious issue, they certainly are. They can be used in crimes and can take a life and all that. That’s all true, but that’s not what I want to talk about.
Just to quickly catch you all up in case you had missed it, Cody Wilson was the first person to create a 3D printable gun and the plans for a 3D printable gun way back in 2013 or so. Certainly, well before this podcast started in 2015. He had created a 3D printable gun. If any of you have ever watched some of the documentary movies about 3D printing, especially Print the Legend, the one about the evolution of MakerBot as a new company to getting bought by Stratasys and all that. A big part of that movie tells the early story of Cody Wilson and his 3D printed gun. He put it out there, made it available. First of all, he made it, he tested it, and it actually works. Then he put it out there for the world to download and print their own guns. Eventually, it was shut down by the government. At first, the ATF got involved. Eventually, it ended up being a branch of the government that deals with the foreign trade of firearms. It is illegal to distribute firearms to other countries and of course, putting these plans on the internet did that.
That was the mechanism the government used to shut him down and keep him from doing it. Cody Wilson has this company called Defense Distributed and he continued to fight this battle with the government, which is a tough road to hoe, I want to say. Taking on the government in a lawsuit, I looked up the statistics and I believe it’s 98.5% of all lawsuits the government files, and they’re mostly criminal cases because it’s something that is supposedly breaking Federal Law in their eyes, they win the vast majority of them. Going up against the government is a very hard thing to do. Originally, Cody Wilson had hired these attorneys who went and argued a Second Amendment argument. Eventually, he ended up firing those lawyers and hiring some new ones who took up the cause and he fought it on a First Amendment grounds, Freedom of Speech.
It was a very interesting tactic that had been used a few years earlier, I think around 2009, in a software case regarding encryption software. The government was trying to stop the software company from distributing their encryption software across country lines. There were some similarities, but there is also quite a bit of difference because there’s a big difference between the result of a gun and an encryption software that’s just locking up a software. This court battle continued to be battled between Cody Wilson and the government. When the Trump administration came in, things have changed over the course of the last year. The powers that be in the government ended up settling with Cody Wilson’s company and allowing him to distribute his 3D printed gun files online as of August 1st, 2018. This just happened when he was allowed to do it. Now, he ended up distributing the files three or four days early than August 1st.
Once he did, it became clear the government was letting him do it, which was really a surprising move. The government didn’t have to do that. I’m not going to again get into the nitty-gritty details of it, because I don’t want this to all be about this case. There’s a bigger point I’m trying to get to here. He certainly was fighting an uphill battle, but all of a sudden, the government turned and said, “We are going to settle this case and allow you to distribute these guns. About August 1st or a couple of days before these plans for 3D printable guns, and not just the one Cody Wilson designed, but there actually are other 3D print plans for guns that he was also distributing, he put them out there. Very quickly, there were eight or ten State Attorneys General who got together and filed another lawsuit to prevent Defense Distributed from distributing the 3D printed gun plans that the Federal Government had allowed them to do.
These eight or ten State Attorneys General filed a suit based on different grounds to try to take these files down off the internet. A Federal judge in the Western District of Washington State agreed to put an injunction in place and they are now preventing Defense Distributed from freely distributing these files once again. They’re not out there, but the reality is they’ve already been downloaded tons of times. The cat is literally out of the bag. This is not going to prevent these things from getting out there. The other thing I want to mention is if you go actually to the Defense Distributed website and you go look at all the different things they have available. Everything from AR-15s to Berettas, serious real gun plans and including his originally created 3D printed gun called the Liberator, there’s an AR-10, there are all sorts of different guns. They have the CAD files out there.
Getting Around The Government
What Cody Wilson was trying to do is provide these things out freely on the internet and to not charge for them. Now, as part of their current plan, they’ve pivoted and they’re actually selling them to customers instead of giving them away for free. Somehow that’s getting around some of what the government is trying to stop him from doing. Here’s the thing that really shocks me. Here’s the big point that I’m trying to get to and what I want to talk about. What’s surprising to me is you have all these different manufacturers of products out there in this country, in the United States, in this case, firearms, that are manufacturing AR-15s, Berettas, all sorts of different firearms. They’re selling them and of course, you have to apply for a license to buy them and you have to have a background check and all that stuff.
Again, putting all that regulatory stuff aside, still what Defense Distributed has done is taken apart all these firearms and scanned all these parts, reverse engineered the parts, and they’ve created CAD software. They’ve created all of the 3D printable plans so that you can go and download these CAD files and whether you 3D print them or maybe you have a CNC milling machine. There may be a number of different processes you might use to make your own gun but still, they’re providing all these plans to make a gun that’s something manufactured by another company.
The issue I want to bring up and talk about is just nobody’s talking about how Defense Distributed is just essentially ripping off the product engineering and designs that these other companies have created and is offering them for sale now and has been offering them for free. What shocks me is there’s no discussion about whether it’s copyright issues. I know there is a potential copyright argument to be made by Defense Distributed because they created these CAD files and they’re putting them out there as software. There’s also another argument that they are trading on a lot of hard work that these other firearm companies have made and are making money on it, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
What no one is talking about is how this company, Defense Distributed, has reverse engineered all of these products. Right now, I’m going to call them products. It doesn’t matter if they’re firearms. These are products that actually have been engineered by other companies. They’re manufactured, sold, distributed by other companies that make their living on selling these products. Here comes a company that has come in and reverse engineered them, created engineering plans and specifications for all the different parts you need to make. If you’ve got the skills and access to the machines, whether that’s a 3D printer, milling machines, stamping machine, whatever it might be, if you’ve got the ability to make your own gun, here is the roadmap and the plans to do it, go ahead and do it. That may be a very high bar and your average criminal, it’s going to be a whole lot easier to go and buy a gun on the black market than it is to go and make one. Maybe that’s true.
Maybe the manufacturers of these products are not going to care because they’re into selling huge volumes of these products and not just onesie-twosie make it yourself so maybe they’re just leaving it alone. Still, I’m shocked that there hasn’t been any discussion around this. Maybe it’s because everybody is distracted. It’s misdirection. You get this big issue of guns and maybe because it’s guns, that is what everybody’s focused on and nobody cares what’s going on over here and this potential intellectual property or copyright. Even if it’s not a true intellectual property or copyright violation to do what they’re doing, I think it raises a big issue of, “Is it right? Is it okay?” I’m not so sure it is. A lot of engineers put a lot of time and energy and companies paid a lot of money to develop those products, and it’s okay to just copy them, reverse engineer them and put them out there for the world. There’s something that isn’t right about that.
Intellectual Property Rights For 3D Printed Products
It’s one of the things that’s bothered me about intellectual property rights for many years. Three-dimensional products are held to a much different standard and are not protected as much by the laws of the United States at least than other types of products or two-dimensional design products. Anything that you photograph, anything that is a 2D graphic design that is created by someone, if that is copied and distributed elsewhere, that’s a huge copyright violation. That’s a big issue. It’s the same thing with movies and the Hollywood industry. A lot of money and effort is put into creating those movies as work of art. If you buy that DVD and copy it and distribute it, whether you sell it or not, that’s against the law in a big way to the point where there’s this huge FBI warning and huge multi-hundred thousand-dollar fines if you do it. You can go and copy these products and distribute them and that’s okay.
I really have a problem with that. I don’t like it, obviously. I don’t mean this to be a rant, but I want to raise this issue because this is an issue that I think we’re going to continue to see with the 3D printing industry phase. I do think there is something to be said and it’s a wonderful thing the 3D printing industry can do in terms of providing files for parts that are out of distribution or no longer being manufactured. The company isn’t even there, out of circulation replacement parts. That’s a wonderful thing and that’s a little easier to deal with because the company that manufactured them is no longer in business, most likely. Or they’ve discontinued the product and they have no interest in making it.
They’re not going to care or stop anybody from reverse engineering a part from a 1940s Ford automobile or something and making that available to people that might want to restore the car.
I think that Ford would probably embrace that because they’re not going to be selling that same car that they made in the 1940s now. There’s no big deal. What if it’s an existing product that people are selling and making a living on now? We deal a lot with Amazon sellers in our business and there are some big battles going on right now in Amazon with counterfeit products coming out of China and even if it’s not a counterfeit product. It can be a product where a company is just copying your brand. We’ve actually seen a literal product from beginning to end including not just the product but its packaging, the instructions, the company’s logo. Everything being just dead nuts knocked off and sold by another company on Amazon when the company that originally created that product and owns that brand has all of the legal right and title to that brand is selling it on Amazon and someone else can just go and create a listing.
Amazon is putting things in place and procedures to determine whose product is it, whose brand is it and to take down the person who’s copying it. You always hear in the political season when you’re talking about foreign trade and things that are unfair about it. How China always gets highly criticized for copying a lot of products, especially US manufactured products and competing unfairly. That gets a lot of attention. We’re talking about China shouldn’t be copying our products, but here in the United States, our own government is allowing Defense Distributed to go and copy products made by other US manufacturers. There are definitely several more shoes to be dropped in this whole story in this industry and I think there are important discussions that need to be had.
There was an awful lot of laws created once the advent of radio came around, which I think it came up on about a hundred years ago. In the early 20th Century, when radio came around and the music was played on the radio and the copyright issues around music, there were a lot of specific laws written about that. To protect the creators of music, the owners of music, and the distributors of music. There are a lot of differences between a music performance and the actual writing of music, meaning the sheet music, the notes, the code for how to go and play that music. There are all kinds of different regulations and laws and rights around that that were carved out very specifically in that industry. I think additive manufacturing, 3D printing, in particular, is going to raise a lot of these same questions.
Eventually, there are going to be laws written that define or at least set up what the rules are and what’s allowed and what’s not allowed in this case. I just don’t think it’s right that anybody who has the skill and ability can just go and copy reverse engineer what another company creates and start selling it and benefiting from it. Something about that just doesn’t sit right with me. Now, take that with a grain of salt or with the understanding that I’m a product development person. I create products for a living, for myself and for other companies and there’s a lot of money invested in that.
I would think as a country and as an economy, we all want companies to continue putting money into research and development to create new products and to create jobs. Not a lot of companies are going to invest the kind of dollars it takes to develop a product that’s new if another company can just so easily get away with copying it and distributing it, even if not in the exact same way. Those are my thoughts on the recent news in 3D printing and it’s going to continue to play out over months to come.
These lawsuits that had been filed by these eight or ten states are going to play out but even after that’s done, I’m sure it’s not going to be the last word we will hear in this battle. We will continue to stay on top of it. Not only to discuss any relevant issues that are maybe of interest to any of us in the 3D printing industry but also, I think as they apply to bigger picture issues of intellectual property rights, copyright, and copying of files. I guess I’ll just close by saying, “I love the additive manufacturing industry. I love 3D printing. I love what it does and I am very optimistic about the future and the potential of it.” I also think the people that originate and create files, CAD files, 3D print products should have some protections against just rampant copying and distribution of what they’ve created.
I don’t think the current Copyright Laws nor the current Patent Laws are sufficient to handle that, to protect that and obviously if they were, we wouldn’t see all these lawsuits going on in the market. Let me know what you think. This is a big issue. There’s a lot of complicated parts to it. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to reach out anywhere on social media, @3DStartPoint. Leave me a comment. I always say, I’m only voicing one opinion, my own. I’m sure there are many others. Let’s just have a civil conversation about it and I’d love to do it. Thanks so much. We’re back. We look forward to continuing to be bringing great things to you here on the WTFFF 3D Printing Podcast.
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