The Controversy of 3D Printing and Stealing Cars

November 12, 2015

10:00 pm

You’ve seen the public service announcements, backed by the MPAA, often attached to older DVD releases and some movie trailers, and now disdained. “You wouldn’t steal a car, so why would you steal a movie?”

The comparison always drew ire, mostly jokingly. Stealing a movie was victimless, an individual could reason, especially if it was pirated electronically and not a stolen copy from a store or rental place (Blockbuster, Hollywood Video… Redbox, now.) A car was a physical object, stealing it would actually withhold it from another person’s possession; it would steal it.

Digital Media VS Physical Media

Logically, it’s easy to see the argument behind “copying isn’t stealing,” comparing “copying a floppy” to lifting a CD that would be lost. But, what people tend to forget is that intellectual property law doesn’t just protect the product, but the execution of that idea. A “movie” falls under the “execution” of an idea, even if the DVD or, say, encoded digital file is ultimately the product.

As more and more media goes online and is available for streaming through, the whole situation gets kind of wishy-washy. You can purchase the right to watch a video once, for example, or a subscription to watch it as much as you want. Are you purchasing the “execution” to watch something once?

3D Printing Physical Objects from Electronic Data

Previously, people who downloaded digital content, like music, would only rarely commit it to a separate physical object, like a CD– how it would look if they bought it from the store. They wouldn’t elevate it to that level, unless they wanted to play a mix-cd in their car or something. 3D printers change that relationship between the digital and the physical, leashing them together in a way that is undeniably ‘concrete’ compared to copying floppy disks or pirating music.

Not having a ‘physical’ copy of the infringed IP doesn’t absolve the guilty. This is similar to the kind of ‘argument’ that torrenting websites try and use to skirt IP and copyright law: ‘we aren’t actually hosting any of the data.’ The unspoken half of the argument is ‘…just providing a means to retrieve it from others.’ It generally doesn’t hold up in a court of law.

Consumer 3D printers have been on the market for almost a decade now, but with more sophisticated technology being poured into the field, the reach that 3D printing can extend only grows with time. 3D Printing could be used to build houses, it’s been used to build guns, and even used to build cars now. Granted, the 3D printed car is more of a 3D printed chassis, than an entire car, engine, suspension, etc, it still counts. It carved the enormous part quantity down from 6000 to a mere 49, including the windshield, engine, and body. That’s a substantial decrease in parts– 12,000% in fact.

If 3D printed designs of proprietary products are detailed and popular enough, that’s likely where the data would pass between hands: torrenting websites. It’s funny, as if it isn’t ridiculously easy to track and locate where pirated content is going.

Production Obstacles

You can already order cars directly from the manufacturer if you want a more… custom make of an offered platform. But you’re still passing equity and economy to the factory, the employees, and peripheral companies. You aren’t “printing” the car at home. Yet.

Even with all that middle-man work, there are already some regulatory issues with Elon Musk wanting to sell Tesla cars directly to consumers throughout the United States. New Jersey, Texas and Arizona decided that Tesla wasn’t allowed to sell cars by going over the traditional dealership networks, despite the fact that… any customer can order a car from the Tesla website.

It seems odd to throw any defense to selling cars directly when legislation can’t do anything about Tesla’s ability to sell cars through their website. It still goes over dealer networks heads, unless there’s a catch that cars must be delivered to dealerships before being picked up by customers – giving the dealers a chance to sell service packages or other ‘goodies.’

But oversight provides a way to regulate. If manufacturers can offer free designs (or designs are pirated from their servers) and people start crafting illicit cars for the public, who is going to be held responsible? The designers, the black-market printers?

Of course, ignoring the threat of stealing for a second, you can think of the open source market. An open-source car doesn’t really exist in any form, because of the huge assembly lines required to build them, the thousands of parts, and the precision in which parts need to be engineered, it’s out of the reach of most hobbyists. Utilizing CNC machines and 3D printers, along with all-in-one chassis designs similar to Local Motor’s unibody, there could be an emerging market for custom work that doesn’t require hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to invest in.

Will all of this become pointless with automation and self-driving car technology just starting to peek over the horizon? How could large scale and sophisticated 3D printing or piracy change in the face of a changing landscape? Hacking? What about illegal modifications or alterations of self-driving devices? Design plagiarism?

Like current 3D printing practices, it can be used for good… or for evil. The original 3D printed gun was banned from the design repository that MakerBot uses, but those who want it bad enough can easily find it. It isn’t like their printers will decline to take the design in. Netflix has “Print the Legend,” a 3D printing documentary, available for those that are interested in the (surprisingly long) history of 3D printing and the current place it stands.

Image Credit: Flickr / Cycleicious’ page / cropped, resized


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Writer in Southwest Idaho. (Finally) finishing up Creative Writing undergrad work. Environmental Editor at Bizarre Culture Mag