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I haven't paid much attention to 3-D printers yet, apart from gawking at videos of all kinds of crazy and gorgeous stuff that people are making with them. The printers are still a bit over the $500 price point right now, which is actually amazingly low, and I definitely want one if as soon as they get a bit more affordable. The possibilities! I'm so making a set of Jee and Zuko figures that are the right size to interact with my Jurassic Park toys. They can ride in the jeep and shoot tyrannosaurs with the little bazooka. I could also make LEGO Jee and Zuko, and Barbie Jee and Zuko, and porn Jee and Zuko and and and.

Here is a video about the possibilities and relevance of 3-D printers. It's plenty awesome all on its own, and I'm sure we all have more than enough imagination to translate this to fannish possibilities. (Not sure if this embed is working, please click the link above if it doesn't.)

Shiny. There's a ton of sites out there with more info and videos, like this one.

Predictably, 3-D printing comes with its own set of potential intellectual property headaches (a good introduction). There have been some incidents already, like this one involving a Warhammer fan. The guy made 3-D printer designs for a few self-created Warhammer figurines and put them up for free downloading, then got hit with a takedown notice based on the DMCA.

Observers predict that in a few years we'll see printers that integrate scanning capability — so your kid can toss in a Warhammer figurine, hit Copy, and get a new one. The machine will become a photocopier of stuff.

This has all the makings of an epic and surreal legal battle. You thought Hollywood and record labels were powerful lobbyists, crushing Napster and suing file-sharers? Wait until you see what the manufacturing industry can do. The American Chamber of Commerce is the single largest lobbyist on Capitol Hill, spending $60 million a year.

But there's one big difference in this clash: The legal situation might actually favor the amateurs.

That’s because, as Weinberg points out, disputes over copies of physical objects are often fought using patent law, which is far less strict than copyright. For example, patents last only 20 years, which means many cool everyday objects (Lego bricks!) are long out of patent. What's more, patent law generally governs only a complete assembled product, so creating replacement parts — a thriving pastime among hobbyists — is probably legal.

What 3-D printing hobbyists mostly have to watch out for, Weinberg argues, is copying artistic patterns or designs on an object. That violates copyright. But if you stick to reproducing or modeling the basic physical nature of something — particularly if you’re rejiggering a physical concept into a new form — you’re probably safe. (Indeed, Weinberg isn't even sure Valenty infringed on Warhammer’s copyrighted designs, because Games Workshop is accusing him of creating figurines in the style of the game, and you can’t copyright style.)

Nice, but...

So really, the longer-term danger here is that manufacturers will decide the laws aren’t powerful enough. Once kids start merrily copying toys, manufacturers will push to hobble 3-D printing with laws similar to the Stop Online Piracy Act. “You’ll have people going to Washington and saying we need new rights,” Weinberg frets. Imagine laws that keep 3-D printers from outputting anything but objects “authorized” by megacorporations — DRM for the physical world. To stave this off, Weinberg is trying to educate legislators now.

Owww. Sounds like an issue we might want to stay aware of. I wonder about the copyright aspects of creating figurines of my favorite characters, too. Hmmm.

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