License To Print

Posted May 14th, 2013 at 4:16 pm (UTC-4)
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How The 3-D Printing Boom May Run Afoul Of The Law

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

UPDATE: May 15, 2013: This article originally stated that Sen. Schumer “wants to ban not just the printing of the gun, but the CAD files themselves.” While it’s accurate to say Sen. Schumer wants an update to the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act to prohibit 3-D printed guns, he  hasn’t said exactly how that would be accomplished. We have removed the last section about the CAD files for clarity.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the nation of England had seen more than its share of riot, revolt and war. Rabble-rousers and trouble-makers lurked everywhere. By 1643, Parliament had had enough. And so it approved something called the “Licensing Order.”

Woodcut showing early movable-type printers in the late 1500’s (public domain)

With it, the government effectively outlawed the unlicensed possession of movable-type printing presses, and also controlled everything that could be printed with them. As absurd as it may seem now, the Licensing Order remained law for 51 years, until it was allowed to lapse in 1694.

At the time, movable-type printing was still a newish technology. Some worried that they might be used to print material that inflamed opinion or challenged those in power (this is, in fact, is one of its prime assets.) The thinking went: control the presses, and you can better control the people.

Since then we’ve learned that some technologies – like printing – simply can’t be controlled over the long term. A printing press wants to be free.

Which makes it all the more interesting that so many in the U.S. are now talking about trying to control an updated version of the printing press – the 3-D printer.

“Disruptive Technologies”

The 3-D printers have only been around for a short time now, but already they’re experiencing a boom in development. They take different forms and employ varying techniques, but the basics are the same.

First, digital computer-aided design, or CAD, files are created that either mimic a real object or represent something completely new. This three dimensional CAD file becomes a blueprint for the printer to use an additive assembly process to slowly build up the printed object layer by layer.

Objects to be printed are slowly built up, tiny layer upon tiny layer, with a plastic resin-like material. Depending on the object, the printing process can take eight hours or more.

It sounds like it couldn’t work, and for this writer at least, the first time seeing one in action it all seems just short of miraculous. Yet surprisingly complex objects can be created in this way – objects that are strong, multicolored, and can move in three dimensions.

“This is classic disruptive technology, a new way of doing things that makes current technology obsolete,” wrote independent journalist Bob Morris in 2012:

“It will create new industries and eliminate old ones. The trend towards 3D printing cannot be stopped. And it absolutely has a political component, as it can route around government regulations and will undoubtedly make some patent and copyright holders go berserk in attempts to stop it.”

Disruptive technology is just a fancy term for new devices that overturn the status quo, and examples are legion. Automobiles overturned railways, TV overthrew radio, LP records were replaced by compact discs, which are now being replaced by digital music files. Yesterday’s new thing becomes tomorrow’s must-have. Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press was just an early disruptor.

But all this disruption comes at a cost, especially if you’re the one being overturned. Technology tends to move faster than governments, and politicians of all stripes don’t like being caught off-guard. Often, all it takes is one incident to thrust a disruptor into public view, setting off an anxious scramble to respond.

The 3-D printer may have just had its incident, and his name is Cody Wilson.

Printing the Liberator

“People say it’s unrealistic to print a gun,” Cody Wilson told Vice magazine this March. “I think it’s more unrealistic…to think you could ever control this technology.”

The “Liberator” in all its printed pieces (courtesy

In July of 2012, Wilson with business partner Ben Denio launched Defense Distributed, a non-profit company that distributes gun and firearm-related CAD files that users can download and print. In little under a year, DD collaborators have designed, printed and successfully tested a variety of gun parts, including high-capacity clips and the trigger action section of the gun known as a “receiver.”

DD’s designs were successful and relatively popular, until the website that hosted them, Thingiverse, suddenly removed them last fall. Sensing censorship, Wilson and Denio opened up their own website, Defcad, and hosted their DD designs there for anyone to freely download. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued DD a license to begin manufacturing gun components.

Unlike many others drawn to 3-D printing, Cody Wilson is no hobbyist or tinkerer. A law student at the University of Texas and a self-described “crypto-anarchist,” Wilson thinks and speaks fast, his speech peppered with phrases like “Fukuyamist,” “autonomous classes” or “oppositional discursive strategy.”

He’s out to make a political point: that U.S. efforts to limit or ban certain types of firearms tramples constitutionally guaranteed rights, and thus will fail. And he sees the 3-D printer as a means to make that argument.

This May, Wilson and Denio put their argument into its sharpest focus yet when they printed and successfully tested an entire gun made on a 3-D printer*. Named the “Liberator,” they put their CAD files on their website, posted a video of the Liberator’s test on YouTube, and waited to see what would happen.

It didn’t take long for the government to respond. The State Department’s department of Defense Trade Controls seized control of the CAD files, and this message soon went up on Defcad’s website:

DEFCAD files are being removed from public access at the request of the US Department of Defense Trade Controls. Until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information.

But nothing stays dead on the Internet for long. The Swedish web-sharing and Internet activist site, The Pirate Bay, is now hosting the CAD files for download, well out of reach of the U.S. Government.

“There are people all over the world downloading our files, and we say good,” says Wilson. “This is something you should have. You can do this in your bedroom. It’s to prove this political point, that, look man, gun control doesn’t mean what it did in 1994.”

Reaction and Over Reaction

Last year, few took any notice of Cody Wilson or Defense Distributed and their “wiki weapons project.” With the Liberator, however, politicians and pundits are practically tumbling over each other, warning of the dangers of plastic guns, unregulated printing and the 3-D printer itself.

Could 3D Printing Unleash a Gun-Printing Craze?” trembles the headline over at MotleyFool.”Hero or villain?” worries libertarian commentator Glenn Beck. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer wants to ban the 3-D printing of a gun, while California state senator Leland Yee has now introduced a bill to track the sale of every 3-D printer. Shades of 1643.

The current panic about 3-D printed guns may subside, but that doesn’t mean local, state and even the federal government, won’t pass a patchwork of new laws that try to regulate what can be manufactured, and by whom, via 3-D printing.

As with all new technologies, the world is still a long way away from people buying a Cube CD printer from their local Staples store and then manufacturing a storehouse of weaponry. 3-D printers are still too expensive, the materials too weak, and real guns too cheap to worry a plastic gun shooting spree.

Enthusiasts and hobbyists are experimenting with these new devices to make all sorts of things. Some envision a small printer in every home – break a cup? Just print one up! Others foresee medical devices printed when needed, or even the pieces for an entire house manufactured on demand.

The world may not be on the edge of a new industrial revolution, but it’s clear 3-D printing will revolutionize how products are created and distributed, and by whom.

It’s also clear that governments and the law will lag behind as the new technology gallops forward, meaning people like Cody Wilson will continue to be flashpoints of controversy.

“I don’t think we’re utopians,” he says. “I think the real utopia is thinking that you can go back to the 1990’s and everything will be perfect forever. All we’re saying is no you can’t. Now there’s the Internet.”


 *To be exactly correct, 15 of the gun’s 16 pieces were printed in plastic. The .380 bullet was purchased through standard means, and the Liberator’s firing bolt was actually a nail purchased at a hardware store.

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