3D Printers May Be Stealing Your IP

3D Printers May Be Stealing Your IPThere is a small revolution going on in the printer world.  It’s not the traditional world of putting ink or toner onto a piece of paper, but the ability to create a three-dimensional object.  We’ve seen replicators in science fiction stories for decades, but now science fact has almost caught up to fiction.

3D printers work like an ink printer.  Rather than using ink, they typically use a type of polymer.  They spray a thin layer of the polymer and create an object layer by layer.  Think of it like building something out of Legos.  You add layer upon layer until you build your object.

These printers are now making it into the consumer world as hobbyists are very excited about producing replacement parts for devices or creating their own devices from scratch.  The recent Maker Faire in New York was awash in 3D printers.  These printers create the objects by using CAD files to guide them.  Many companies produce open-source CAD files or those licensed under Creative Commons so that anyone can print parts or complete objects.

The idea is a fascinating one and could create a tremendous boon of creativity and businesses as more people can create prototypes or actual products.  This is a very disruptive technology.  Unfortunately with the good also comes the bad.  Since these printers run on CAD drawings, intellectual property (IP) will be threatened, as a market for stolen CAD drawings will emerge.

Industrial and state-sponsored espionage is nothing new.  Companies and governments pay to steal the latest design drawings of smartphones, defense systems, computers, automobiles, and a whole range of devices and equipment.  If you have the drawings, you can create the device without having to spend the time and money on R&D.  Fortunately a company needs facilities to produce the components or devices, so thefts tend to be limited to larger organizations that can build them.

The knee-jerk reaction of many IP holders will be to run to their lobbyists and try to pass more stringent laws to prevent this CAD piracy.  This is what happened when the printing press, photocopiers, and VCRs came on the scene.  Eventually, rights holders came to grips with the new technologies.

A better solution is to protect the CAD drawings themselves with a persistent security policy.  Encrypting AutoCAD, Pro/E, SolidWorks, Catia and other files with a policy that restricts who can access them and what they can do with them is the best solution.  This lets IP holders exchange files with manufacturing partners and customers without worrying about them falling into the wrong hands.  If the document does get into the wrong hands, the owner can kill access to it.  This leaves the thief with an unreadable file.

3D printers will disrupt many industries, just like email, phone cameras, and even computers changed the way we create and consume information.  Protecting your most important information with file-level security is the best way to ensure that your latest design doesn’t show up on the printer of a hobbyist.


Photo credit Cheezburger

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