Ethics & 3D Printing

English: Example of replication of a real obje...

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According to the hype, 3D printers are going to change the world in many positive ways. For example, home 3D printers will allow people to create replacement parts when something breaks. As another example, home 3D printers will allow anyone (with the money) to create their own objects (although much of this will be plastic junk). As a third example, the fact that 3D printers are almost universal machines (that is, they can theoretically make almost anything) will allow cheaper manufacturing. Not surprisingly, there is also a dark side to 3D printing.

One obvious point of moral concern is that such printers can allow people to print their own weapons and use these to harm people. While the first printed gun is not much of a weapon (it essentially a plastic “zip gun”), it did show that guns can be printed using the current technology. As the technology improves, it seems reasonable to believe that much better weapons could be printed, thus allowing the usual suspects (criminals, terrorists, and so on) to secretly print up their own weapons.

While this is a concern, people can and do already make their own weapons. While these weapons are usually fairly crude, they can be quite deadly—as the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 showed. As such, 3D printing would not seem to significantly increase this sort of threat.

People can also get the metalworking tools needed to make more sophisticated weapons, although these are rather expensive and require skill to operate. Because of this, 3D printing might present an actual threat—a person does not need any special skills to print up a gun, although a printer capable of making an effective gun would probably be rather expensive.

Overall, until the printer technology is cheap and effective enough to print effective guns (that is, comparable to manufactured firearms), they will not present a significant threat. As such, there seems to be (as of now) little moral reason to be worried about this sort of use of 3D printing.

Another matter of obvious moral concern is that 3D printers will allow people to easily and secretly duplicate patented and copyrighted objects. Using a currently available home 3D printer, a person could print up copies of toys, miniatures (for games like D&D), parts and so on. Thus, 3D printing will allow people to do with objects what they have been doing with music, movies and software, namely engaging in piracy.

“Solid piracy” or “3D piracy” does differ from digital piracy in at least one key respect. In the case of printing an object, a person is not stealing the physical object that the manufacturer made. For example, if I were to print a copy of a copyrighted dragon (or gargoyle) miniature for my Pathfinder game, this is rather different from me going to the local gaming store and shoplifting that miniature.

On the one hand, this does seem to be a meaningful difference: by printing the dragon, I am not actually stealing the object. After all, no one is deprived of the object. As such, copying and printing a patented or copyrighted object would not be theft in the usual sense of stealing an actual object. Similar arguments have, of course, been given as to why pirating software, movies and music is not theft.

On the other hand, this does still seem to be theft. While I am not guilty of stealing the matter that makes up my dragon (assuming I did not steal that) I did steal the design of the dragon. For something like a plastic dragon miniature, the matter that makes it up is not the valuable component. Rather, to go with Aristotle, it is the form of the matter. In this case, the form of an imaginary dragon.

This sort of theft of design is nothing new—people have been stealing designs and producing their own objects for quite some time. What is different about 3D printing is that it makes such theft of form very easy. Sticking with my dragon example, before 3D printing it would have been very difficult for me to steal the dragon design/form: I would have had to create a mold of the dragon, melted down the plastic to make it and so on. It would, obviously, be cheaper and easier to just buy the dragon. However, 3D printing would allow me to easily copy the dragon. While there would be the cost of the printer (and perhaps a 3D scanner) and the materials, if I did enough copying and the material was cheap enough, it would also be cheaper to steal the dragon design than buy the dragon.

However, it would still be theft—I would be using the design owned by someone else without providing just compensation and this would be just as wrong as stealing a movie, software or music. Of course, there are those who contend that copying movies, software or music is not theft and they would presumably hold the same view about solid/3D piracy.

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17 Comments.

  1. Interesting article. However you seem to forget (and omit) the fact that folks will also be capable of fabricating weapons to protect themselves and their families. Your one sided assessment of this issue is precisely the foundation of ‘gun control’ freaks.
    So, if your talking philosophy, you must see the one sidedness of your point of view.

  2. Thanks for the article, Mike. I think this is an interesting area, and I don’t fully understand my own thoughts on this issue.

    For example, is it morally wrong to mimic someone per-se, or only when they suffer a negative economic consequence as a result? If the latter, then that seems a relative moral rule, as different economic systems will result in different levels of harm, or perhaps no harm at all. If the former then I would wonder about where the line is. If creative objects can’t be mimicked, and creative objects are only formed through movements of the body, then what other types of movement can’t be mimicked? If I observe a man drinking from a river by cupping his hands, have a done a him a moral wrong if I copy his method? What if I copy a dance, or a style of speech. As it might be clear, this is where my mind goes very fuzzy.

    Interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts about these underlying rules.

    P.S. I am not well schooled in Philosophy, so if there is a well-worn moral argument here then I look forward to being educated!

  3. Forms are immaterial, abstract and universal, and by definition they cannot be “stolen”

  4. domersi,

    “However you seem to forget (and omit) the fact that folks will also be capable of fabricating weapons to protect themselves and their families.”

    Protect their families? The parents of the children massacred at Sandy Hook were able to buy guns in shop, they did not lack guns because they did not have access to a 3d printer.

    “Your one sided assessment of this issue is precisely the foundation of ‘gun control’ freaks.”

    What was the “upside” to Sandy Hook? And I don’t remember any gun control ‘freaks’ shooting up a school full of little children (if only those little children had had a 3d printer, and a template to print a zip gun) . I think that was the gun ‘out of control’ freaks did that. The gun loonies.

    “So, if your talking philosophy, you must see the one sidedness of your point of view.”

    No. Philosophy is about telling people who are wrong about things, they’re wrong. And if you don’t like it pilgrim. Get down off your horse an go for your gun.

  5. “For example, if I were to print a copy of a copyrighted dragon (or gargoyle) miniature for my Pathfinder game, this is rather different from me going to the local gaming store and shoplifting that miniature.”

    Mike……you nerd.

    You don’t need anything as hi-tech as a 3d printer. Just how to make a rubber mold. Which is not rocket science. When I was a nerd (right up to puberty) I used to make these things.

  6. 3D printers don’t kill people; people kill people.

    There is nothing new to add to morality here. This is no more than a discussion about how people might turn 3D printers to what are already good or bad acts. I don’t see this as philosophy at all.

  7. domersi said: “However you seem to forget (and omit) the fact that folks will also be capable of fabricating weapons to protect themselves and their families.”

    JMRC replied: Protect their families? The parents of the children massacred at Sandy Hook were able to buy guns in shop, they did not lack guns because they did not have access to a 3d printer.

    Respectfully, this counter argument is a fallacy: Red Herring – The fact that the murderer at Sandy Hook (may he rot in hell if such a place does exist) was able to get guns legally has nothing to do with the argument that people *could* use 3D printers to create weapons, or that someone could do so with the intent to “protect their family”.

    The original point was that making weapons via 3D printer could be done for either “good” purposes or “bad”.

    A better argument would be to counter with evidence that there could be no “good” reason to do so, but this would be hard to defend. Few people would accept that people have no right to defend themselves at all.

    Since this is a difficult argument, the next step would be to perhaps claim that *intent* behind the items creation counts for nothing. The idea is that even a person creating a weapon for a “good” cause *might* lose control of it and have it fall into the hands of those who would use it for “bad” reasons (such as initiating harm to others). This is the consequentialist viewpoint (that the moral worth of an action can only be judged by it’s results, not the intent of the actor) and is one of the usual replies to this argument.

    By invoking Sandy Hook, you only end up appealing to emotions by pushing ‘hot buttons’.

    Of course Michael is the expert on Fallacies, so I’ll defer to him in this regard, should he comment.

    Thank you all for the conversation.

  8. Ron Murphy,

    When Printomurdematic 3000 debuts you will see how wrong you were. :)

    Oddly, in a way my point is just that: the 3D printer is not really a radical change in regards to ethics. It merely makes certain tasks easier. I could, as I said, make a mold of the dragon and melt down plastic to make my own. The 3D printer merely makes it easier, just as CD ripping software made it easier to steal music. This is generally true of most technology: one could kill 10,000 people with one’s hands, but it is far easier to use a bomb, chemicals, or biological agents.

  9. Is it stealing if I scan the legally bought dragon and make a copy? If I make a rubber mold?

    What if I have a good eye and reproduce it accurately in a CAD program?

    Where does the legal line get drawn? It’s not like the company came up with the concept ‘dragon’ and suddenly we must all pay them royalties.

  10. GC,

    “Respectfully, this counter argument is a fallacy: Red Herring – The fact that the murderer at Sandy Hook (may he rot in hell if such a place does exist) was able to get guns legally has nothing to do with the argument that people *could* use 3D printers to create weapons, or that someone could do so with the intent to “protect their family”.”

    No it is not a red herring. Gun related deaths in a typical European country rarely exceed double figures. There were 41 gun deaths in the UK last year. How would you be best to protect your family? Have a small arsenal like Nancy Lanza – yep, that really protected her and her family, and the neighbourhood children.

    “By invoking Sandy Hook, you only end up appealing to emotions by pushing ‘hot buttons’.”

    You mean by invoking Sandy Hook, I take one example of many that makes your position indefensible. “That’s not fair, dragging the school massacres into this”. What do you want me to do, tie a hand behind my back, or both hands behind my back.

    Maybe if you had a factual example of self defense – like a Nancy Lanza type fending off a marauding gang of urban criminals assaulting her quite upper class suburban neighbourhood, after her Martha Stuart living beige cushion covers, and matching lampshades. With nothing more then a cache of household automatic weapons and her son, who by all accounts was quite a good shot. Adam could have been a hero, a poster child for the NRA. Then you’d have an argument to balance against Sandy Hook.

    But you don’t have a story like that, because nothing like that ever happens.

    More American kids die in their homes from their parents firearms then all the people who die from gun violence in a country like the UK put together. England, where the good guys are not allowed own guns, and they are defenseless against the rampaging urban hoards, it would be very rare that a child ever loses their life in a firearms incident. A baby was shot through the head in Baltimore just a few weeks back. It only made local Baltimore news. Yes, it was an urban child – do they not mind dying as much?

    But thank God you do not live in England. Every night of the week gangs of urban people coming crashing through your windows and raping your wife and daughters, while you just stand helplessly by, if only you had a gun – like Charles Bronson in Death Wish. That isn’t true. In England you have a better chance of winning the lottery than ever being in a situation where someone even points a gun at you in anger.

    So, if you truly do want to protect your wife and family, wouldn’t it be more sensible just to get rid of all the guns. Or do you put the safety of your family above the desire to own a gun. Do you care more about your gun, than your family?

    “Few people would accept that people have no right to defend themselves at all.”

    Do you mean few people would have a problem with Florida’s “Stand your Ground” law, or the “Shoot first ask questions later” charter, as it should probably be known by now.

    “That’s not fair…why did you have to drag Trayvon Martin into this….it was dark, George Zimmerman just did what anyone else would have done. He was standing his ground. ” You might say.

    Trayvon Martin’s self-defense would have been best served, had George Zimmerman not have been allowed own a gun. But it’s even worse, Florida law now allows people like George to shoot whoever they feel afraid of.

    But maybe the answer is to arm black teenagers. If only Trayvon Martin had a gun, he could have shot George Zimmerman dead. It would have been unfortunate, but you’d do the same if some loon whacked out on Adderall* came out shouting and rushing at you, and possibly armed – a pack of skittles and a can of ice tea is not going to be much use – against a drug crazed violent maniac, is it.

    *Adderall is meth for middle-class people. The same high without all that being locked up with urban people thing.

  11. Mike LaBossiere,

    “This is generally true of most technology: one could kill 10,000 people with one’s hands, but it is far easier to use a bomb, chemicals, or biological agents.”

    The idea crossed my mind last night. The use of technology for purposes different from the original intention of its’ creators – and this essentially what happens with all technology.

    The robots using in manufacturing are often glorified printers. They’re made by the same companies who make printers, and the robots are very similar. They’re pretty simple devices – a printer is not going to do much more than print things. But…now.. and even more so within the next few decades, it will be possible to make far more sophisticated robots. They may still be relatively simple in comparison to humans, but they could be capable of a lot more. You can put in all the defense mechanisms you want, but someone will be able to hack through them. The janitor droid could be turned into a cold blooded and emotionless mass killer. The short order cook droid could override the safety on their chest cavity microwave oven, and cook people instead of mash and beans.

    And what if the droids decide to rise up against their human masters? Would we stand a chance?

    There are lots of other applications though for more advanced robotics. A droid may be capable of doing wery complex chemistry – and be able to synthesis everything from high explosives to illegal drugs from household items. Chemistry, biology, or anything like that would normally require a human expert, may be within easy reach of a WalMart Wally3000.

    No one has done a drug printer yet, but I don’t think it will be long before someone does. A decade or two, every teenage dope fiend will have one in their bedroom.

  12. Keddaw,

    In the US duplicating something that is legally protected is illegal (although there are some exceptions for certain uses).

    Morally, I would say that duplicating something to avoid paying for it or to sell copies would be theft, with some exceptions.

  13. JMRC,

    Perhaps we should heed Lovecraft’s advice and never raise up something that we cannot put down…

  14. Mike, if we can leave the selling aspect to one side then I think we hit upon some seriously murky waters.

    If I have virtually perfect recall and can, at any time, recall a book or movie to an incredible degree then have I stolen that work if I don’t have a legal copy? If I use a friend’s item to refresh my memory is that stealing?

    Also, please don’t go throwing ‘legal’ around as if it means anything other than group A have lobbied those in power to restrict use in a way that is materially beneficial for group A. While there might be some benefit for society at large, don’t conflate legal with beneficial or right or good (not that I believe in either of the last two but still…)

    I think there is an exceedingly strong argument to be made for it being right and proper and legal for someone who has broken their dragon to be able to print off another one to continue playing their game. It would pretty much come under the same fair use doctrine that we see used for digital media backups.

  15. The legal point was to address the matter of theft in the context of the law. As you note, what is legal is defined by convention-although some theorists claim a more substantial foundation.

    As you said, the matter of personal use is more murky. If I copy a dragon to use in my own game, one could argue that this is still comparable to stealing a miniature-although I am stealing the formal cause rather than the material cause. My own intuition is that this would be wrong, based on reversing the situation: as a writer, I would see myself as wronged if people stole the text of my non-free books for personal use. So, I must extend the same to other creators or be inconsistent.

    The replacement case does seem to be fair use-if I buy a dragon and it gets smashed in a game, printing a single replacement seems okay. As you point out, this would be analogous to backing up software, music or a movie. I have paid for a dragon, so I have the right to a dragon.

  16. “I have paid for a dragon, so I have the right to a dragon.”

    And yet a great many, especially in the dragon producing world, would contend that what you have is the right to that specific dragon you bought and not a general right to a dragon.

    My own view would be that dragon is a generic concept and trying to claim a general restriction on others from using that concept in similar ways is overly broad and not in line with the general/ostensible aims of the legal protections we have in place, i.e. encourage invention, reward progress and allow for short periods of exclusive rewards for creators to encourage them to ultimately share their ideas with society at large (for both technological and artistic innovation).

  17. True, it could be argued that I just own the right to use that miniature and hence if it is busted I am obligated to do without or buy a replacement.

    But, I do like your backup copy analogy and agree that it would seem to apply.

    In fact, if 3D printing takes off people will no doubt start selling (and stealing) patterns for objects, Perhaps with licenses specifying the number of copied a person can make.

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