Judge Dredd and Social CAD

JudgeDreddMention The Amazon Cloud and Computer Aided Design (CAD) in the same sentence and it’s not long before the hand wringing  commences and blood pressure starts to rise.  The nearly simultaneous emergence of cloud storage, virtualized platforms, Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions, and rental pricing models are creating a perfect storm of both possibility and confusion.  At the epicenter of this explosion of technology is a developing cultural shift towards truly collaborative or crowd-sourced design, as described in All Your Engineering Are Belong to Us.  Leading the charge into this by-no-means certain future are social CAD sharing sites like GrabCAD, and 3D printing options that include a growing variety of on-demand services, or perhaps your very own Makerbot printer.  But some troubling legal questions remain largely unanswered, and so it’s not unreasonable ask: Is the social CAD revolution a legal time bomb?  Judge Dredd is not amused.

Let’s tackle 3D printing first, as the apparent legal implications are certainly more obvious.  An article in Computer World warning about the implications of 3D printing on the future of intellectual property (IP) mentions:

“When 3D printing allows anyone to scan an object and create it, the concept of intellectual property and trademarks will increasingly become irrelevant.

“IP will be ignored and it will be impossible or impractical to enforce,” said John Hornick, an IP attorney with Finnegan, Henderson, Farbow, Garrett & Dunner LLP in New York and a speaker at the Inside 3D Printing Conference here today. “Everything will change when you can make anything.”

The onslaught against IP will begin with the toy industry, Hornick said”

Well, no sense in wasting any time.  Even before the above article was published, Joaquin Baldwin, an enterprising digital artist used open source 3D extraction tools to obtain the primitive polygonal character models from the PC version of  Square-Enix’s 1998 megahit Final Fantasy VII.  He then optimized the models for printing, uploaded them to 3D printing service Shapeways to produce in color, and started selling them for cash-money.  Fans of the game generated a huge wave of viral traction, and it wasn’t long before Square-Enix was wielding a cease-and-desist buster sword on the grounds of copyright infringement.  This particular example may seem like a bunch of trivial plastic crap, but it demonstrates an important point: the barrier of entry is alarmingly low.

Now extrapolate that scenario over a CAD sharing service like GrabCAD, whose user agreement puts the onus of verifying model ownership on the uploading user, combined with the rapid-accelerating technology to make usable production parts through additive manufacturing.  Reverse engineering becomes an easy 3-step process:  1. Download, 2. Print, 3. Profit.  Think no one is stupid or evil (or stupidly evil) enough to do such a thing?  Already some isolated incidents have occurred with GrabCAD, where an overseas company called ICADer attempted to make a business out of downloading shared GrabCAD models and reselling the models without owner permission.  Yikes.  That’s more annoying than the makin’ copies guy.

It’s not far beyond that before the wheels are off.  The situation becomes more troubling as 3D printing technology matures to support load-bearing applications in parts traditionally produced by conventional manufacturing methods.   Already companies like SpaceX are using additive laser sintering to produce real spacecraft parts.  Counterfeit parts have always been a problem in highly regulated industries like aerospace.  What’s the problem with a counterfeit part if it’s built from the same model?  It has no quality assurance for one, and that’s kind of a problem if it causes your rocket to blow up or your plane to crash.

But wait just a minute.  No one in their right mind is going to upload a patented or copyrighted part – and even if they do it would be for private sharing with a designated supplier or vendor  Right?  Right?

That’s where another concept of the social CAD sharing may exacerbate the problem: the CAD portfolio. GrabCAD for one has promoted the concept of an online CAD portfolio to demonstrate skill in the same way traditional art portfolios work in media industries.  It’s an excellent idea actually, but as with everything else, there are potential pitfalls.

In a magical faraway land we’d all like to take engineering work we’ve done previously and display excerpts as a portfolio.  This works OK if you happen to be a freelancer, and have enough leeway in your Non-Disclosure Agreement to publish portions of your work, or if you’re a student posting your school project.  If you work in industry however, your employer has full rights to anything you produce.  Furthermore, chances are if you did work in certain industries, such as aerospace, some of what you are working on is subject to Export Administration Regulations (EAR) or worse still International Traffic and Arms Regulations (ITAR).  The funny thing about export regulations (especially ITAR) is the legal liability falls on whomever commits the export.

The problem is people naturally tend to be rather complacent about company IP or export controls.  You can make the argument that this may already happen via email, sneaker net, and/or Dropbox.  Preventing such incidents requires all the more vigilance on the part of IT to close potential security holes.  Sometimes that requires downright Draconian methods, and restricts the ability to collaborate.  As software gains additional sharing integration (like the GrabCAD integration now available in several popular tools) the chance of an inadvertent violation escalates.  Time for a Stallone-style frowny face.

Data wants to be free.  Which means eventually the wrong data will come into public CAD sharing.  The main problem with that is the law doesn’t care what data wants.  Dredd: I am the law.  It’s one thing if you’re violating copyright – we’re you’ll get a cease and desist and possibly get sued in the process.  Violate export law, however, and I hope you look great in orange.  And Dredd, well, he’ll just shoot you.