There Is No Original | 3D Printing | Object Piracy

Occasionally an article catches one’s eye that genuinely opens a raft of interesting new thoughts. That happened to the other day when I read this Guardian piece about a new area of Pirate Bay that offers templates for 3D printers to clone figures for Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Lord of the Rings table-top games.

Up until now, media piracy – as opposed to nautical banditry – has been concerned with freeing up access to information. In the 17th Century, with characters such as Henry Hill the Book Pirate (see this excellent short history of book piracy here), this was about giving the poor equal access to textual information by way of cheap editions of books and illicit pamphlets that were uncensored by the church or crown.

In the digital age this pirate spirit of free access to information was made orders of magnitude more easy as so much – words, music, images, videos, programs – was now no more than a package of 1’s and 0’s. That has wreaked havoc with the industries concerned with protecting their products and trying to make money out of them, but up until now the physical world has remained somewhat immune.

Sure, you could always buy a knock-off Rolex if you wanted to, but that still required some manufacturing work – even if it was substandard. That protection from digitised sharing afforded by the physical is now beginning to crumble. As Pirate Bay spokesman Winston Q2038 put it:

One of the things that we really know is that we as a society will always share. Digital communication has made that a lot easier and will continue to do so. We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects. The benefit to society is huge. No more shipping huge amount of products around the world. No more shipping the broken products back. No more child labour.

This is still some way off, as 3D printers are still prohibitively expensive, but it wasn’t that long ago that the same could be said for DVD burners. What we are looking at in the near future is a world where many physical objects will be able to be pirated and copied right in the home. Like the design of that lampshade? Go to Pirate Bay and download the code for it. Lost a Scrabble tile? Just print one off. Found out where Paris Hilton lives? Print off a key to her house. Everyone will have one.

Of course, there will be symbiotic reaction from the physical world too. We will no long have keys – they’ll just not be safe. And true craftsmen will return to materials that will be more difficult to pirate. But others will embrace this world, and deliver extraordinary things to customers… bespoke will become ordinary; there will be no more original.

This dissolution of the physical into the digital has interesting implications for all art and craft… something I blogged about from a different angle way back in 2005 (ouch!):

“A work of video art is simply a video signal on a tape. Early analog video technology is termed ‘lossy’ – meaning that with every successive copy there is a noticable degradation in quality. Analog technologies still had some claim to the construction of an ‘original’ – the photograph had the negative, and the video has the master copy, from which further copies are struck. The negative and master thus have more value than their offspring.

“Digital video formats released by Sony in the 1990′s changed this condition completely, as they allowed for perfect reproduction. Video is now simply a piece of code – a string of ones and zeros that, unlike its analog parent, is wholly duplicable. Enabling the production of infinite clones with no discernable value hierarchy thus renders ‘original’ a meaningless term.”

That ‘perfect reproduction’ may well be heading out of the hard-drive, and onto the (physical) desktop. And, as ever, pirates will be there to chase down those who want to profiteer. Going to be interesting times.


One response to “There Is No Original | 3D Printing | Object Piracy”

  1. Really interesting thoughts, thanks.

    As a pedantic point though, Winston Q2038’s comment on “no more child labour” is a little misleading as there’s still the possibility of child labour / poor workplace conditions for the 3D printer manufacturing workers (unless you can print out your own fully functioning 3D printer?).

    It’s a difficult balance of ethics and morals, making sure the original creator / craftsman gets recompensed appropriately for their creativity whilst not restricting / sandboxing things by creating exclusive monopolies. Not sure where it leads or how it is resolved really.

    There’s the moral imperative to uphold the law, when it doesn’t conflict with God’s law, but also a moral imperative to challenge the laws that are unjust and oppressive.

    I find the “I will, because I am allowed to by law…” (MP expenses scandal) is just as bad as “I won’t because the law prohibits me from…” (Philadelphia’s outlawing of handing out food to the homeless on the street).

    Anyway, thanks for sharing, this Pirates book is definitely looking very interesting.