A 3D printed world needs a Birth Certificate for Ideas

On the eve of the first DMCA takedown notice in 3D printing, my post has become quite topical.

In a 3D printed world we will be able to make and reverse engineer anything. Any form can be copied, either through 3D modeling or scanning. It will take us a while to reach a time where “everything” can be copied but this time will come. Upheaval has already occurred in the movie and music industry but this will only expand as books and then all things are dragged kicking and screaming into the digital domain. If we look around the intellectual property landscape we can at a glance instantly comprehend that we are, legally, entirely unprepared for such a world. In this (yes, entirely too lengthy) article I’ll try to give an overview of the issues plaguing intellectual property today, then discuss some solutions and subsequently discuss some relevant examples of modern forms of IP  protection that seem to point to answers for us all. This is not some obscure lawyerly discussion. I might not do it justice. But, in my mind, the failure of the IP system is the single greatest threat to art, culture and business today.

The patent system is broken. Currently the costs of obtaining a patent are estimated to be $10,000 or above and it takes around 22 months to get one. 22 months is roughly a fourth of the entire lifespan of the company Facebook. Defending your patent is expensive  and in many cases becomes a contest of who has the deepest pockets. Rather than foster and reward innovation the patent system has become a silly game played by big companies in order to irritate each other. It is far too slow and expensive to provide for any real protection for the individual inventor and creator. The patent system is a languid rich man’s game in a world where everyone is connected to the same information and exposed to near instantaneous innovation.

Torrent sites have let a generation come of age used to getting their video content quickly and without cost. Meanwhile after more than 10 years of a consumer internet the music, television & movie industries have been unable and/or unwilling to adapt their business models to a world where the transmission of information is immediate. Only recently have platforms such as Hulu & Netflix streaming have emerged which allow some people to legally view the content they want to when they want to. But, for most people it is still more convenient to download illegally than to obtain legal video content on the web.

Trademarks & copyrights are largely ignored on the internet. Content is largely appropriated, remixed, reused and spread around. I believe in letting creators decide what to do with their content and I also believe that the internet should encourage the spread of information as far as possible. I can not seem to come up with an optimal balance between the two.

Attributing content to their rightful creators occurs online but only irregularly. If an item is attributed then often you see that as the content spreads around the web the attribution is lost.  On some of the most creative and large sites on the internet, photographs & video are often posted without any information on the original creator. By not giving any attribution to the original creator innovation and creative work are not rewarded.

We need to find out a way to reward innovation in a modern world. I’m not naive enough to think for a moment that the entire intellectual property framework can be reformed in any meaningful way in the near term. We’ll be able to 3D print moon bases before we have a working patent system. But, we need to develop mechanisms that would let us establish who created something, who remixed this thing and who popularized it. We need to come up with a system that establishes both a birth certificate and a chain of custody for ideas. In order to function this system will need referees. If we do this then business models could emerge that do indeed reward people for innovation. More importantly, by establishing the birth of an idea, its parent and how an idea spread we could recognize, laud and reward those of us who invent and bring ideas to the world.

A Birth Certificate for Ideas

The origination of an idea is precious and usually takes a lot of hard work in terms of working on that idea and in terms of understanding things that let you come up with that idea. It is much easier to just steal an idea and spread it. In an internet age the poachers will always beat the prey. By establishing a trustworthy “website of record” that anyone could submit their ideas to the inventor of a new idea could be established and in some way rewarded. Please note that this concept does not provide for direct monetary reward for the inventor. But, this person will receive the recognition that establishes them as the idea’s inventor and hopefully the rewards whether they be in new opportunities, attention or by increasing their “brand.”

A Chain of Custody for Ideas

By establishing how an idea spreads and how it is remixed one could follow the re-combinations and spread of ideas worldwide. This would reward people that curate and synthesize ideas for their efforts. Hopefully both the “birth certificate” and “chain of custody” would  bring attention to bear on the custodians of ideas and away from people that add little value but just appropriate ideas. Hopefully these systems will also bring about a true feeling of respect for the custodians of ideas and a passion in many people to reward them and see that they get their due.

Referees for ideas

Impartial people will be needed to determine who was first and who is truly original. Ideally these people should work quickly, almost instantaneously as product development and the remix of cultural goods will be instantaneous. Ideally they should also be as impartial as possible and motivated by a true wish to recognize originality.

Possible Solutions

There are already a number of developments happening now that are encouraging and could point a way forward.

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons movement already allows people to decide in which licenses to share their creations. The issue with the Creative Commons framework currently is that it lacks “bite.” Rarely have companies and indivduals been shamed for their appropriations of Creative Commons work. Also, Creative Commons is at its most powerful in combination with something like Flickr or Thingiverse. Flickr establishes the origination of a photograph and its birth by offering public photo storage on the web. You can basically claim an image as your own on Flickr and through the upload date establish when you created it. If the photograph is not yours the Flickr community could call you out on that. Without this public recognition it is difficult to enforce Creative Commons. I’ve often seen blog posts that use Flickr images with the correct Creative Commons attribution loose this attribution within one or two rounds of “reblogging.”


I-Depot is an easy way to establish that you invented something. You upload your idea to the Benelux Office for Intellectual Property and pay them 35 Euros. If you at one point enter into a legal dispute over your creation the I-Depot is an excellent form of proof that could protect you. But, the submissions to the I-Depot are confidential. So it acts as a birth certificate that no one is able to see. This would work well with things that you want to keep secret (while keeping your fingers crossed that no one else also invents it or patents it in your staid). But, the I-Depot does not publicly establish that you originated an idea. The I-Depot also leaves enforcement up to the courts and this is cumbersome and expensive.


Twitter could easily in its current form do a lot of the “birth certificate” functionality. Because tweets are public and can be seen by many people, ideas and “who was first” can be traced via Twitter to their origins. The weakness within Twitter happens if you invent something but Bob is quicker to post something. Also Twitter amplifies the loudest voices so your true idea could easily be ripped off by a more social media savvy internet user than yourself. This might rob you of your moment in the sun. And even if retrospectively you would receive credit for your innovation it might be too late for it to matter.


Reddit is a website that receives interesting links from its community. These links are then voted and discussed by that community and karma can be given by the community to members who say or discover interesting things. I love Reddit but it has been one of the worst offenders in popularizing unattributed content. Often the most popular things on the site are images that provide no link nor original name. Redditors are given karma points in return for their resourcefulness and efforts on behalf of the community but precious few of the creators of the works are. Reddit is however excellent in determining if content is original and the community has recently become much more pro-attribution. The referee functionality whereby the community determines what is original works well. The Reddit system would be an excellent system for determining the authenticity and attribution of all the ideas in the world.


There is no copyright in fashion. No other industry seems as obsessed with “the new” but IP anarchy seems to work for it. There have been many discussions by more knowledgeable people than I on fashion and IP. I’d like to concentrate on why, in my opinion, fashion as an industry works. The fashion industry works because of a powerful combination between that fashion obsessed cousin of yours, runway shows & Vogue.

Because each designer has a seasonal runway show “progeny” and “descent” is established. Because Vogue covers the shows and transmits them around the world people in the know everywhere know which designer is innovating and which ones are not. This piles on the pressure for further innovation and also stimulates more people to discover and research fashion magazines in order to understand the arcane paths of fashion innovation.  By fostering educated fashionistas innovation is also rewarded at the cash register. This is because these knowledgeable referees are cognizant of who brought back the legging this time. They will reward innovation and their recognition spreads brands and trends way beyond a core group of fashion fans. The fashion system is not perfect. As with Twitter a famous designer could still perhaps get away with ripping off an unknown one. But, the system is the most perfect one I’ve found. So, the next time you see your cousin lounging with a fashion magazine please do not look down on her seemingly idle pursuit. She is shaping the multi billion dollar fashion industry by acting as a referee and that glossy advertising filled magazine is actually a “chain of custody for ideas” reporting on runway shows which are the “birth certificate of ideas.”

So what would a combination of I-Depot, Flickr, Reddit, Creative Commons, Twitter, Vogue, runway shows and passionate referees look like?

Well it would be a lot like Reddit is. In the sense that it is big, popular and a well functioning community that is good at policing itself.

People would post under their real names and their voting and posting history would be visible to all. I do appreciate and understand the benefits of anonymity on the internet but I think that if one were to write & vote publicly under one’s own name it would be more likely that more people will be honest. Want people to behave? Give them more to lose.

It will be a lot like Thingiverse or Flickr because it would act as a reliable public repository for IP.

It will have to be a lot like Twitter as a timeline.

It would have to be managed by an organization and individuals who are beyond reproach. If successful a repository that establishes the origination for any and all IP would be a very influential tool and its staff would be the final arbiters in complex and weighty disputes.

There would have to be some way to embed a unique code into any image, video, file on the site. That way this IP code could always be used to trace the origins of the content to a source URL and person. If the code were absent the piece of content would not be verified and so would be suspect.

The first string of the IP code would have to be personal identifier for an individual. The second string could be a string to identify an organization this person works for. A third would signify a date and a fourth the license under which it can or can not be shared. If you would use the piece of content in some way, your string would be automatically added to the IP code of the content item and to the website that held the original content submission. That way the two could be compared if need be.

An API could validate the presence and correctness of the IP code. This means that if the content was posted on participating websites the content could be checked and this could be displayed to users, getting them involved.

An automated visual and design search engine (a hyper TinEye) would automatically group similar designs or other content. This would let people check for similarities or breaches. This would also let people discover new things.

There would have to be an enforcement system. There would have to be a public list of companies that have grossly violated other’s IP. Hopefully the spectre of being on this list would be enough to dissuade only the most hardy.

For those who go even further campaigns could be started in order to pressure people into compliance.

The most important thing of all is that we would need to foster a culture of recognition of the new. Originality and novum are rare these days and will become rarer still as we are all exposed to the same information and as more information is created. We must let people value, love and recognize those of us who invent new things.

All images Creative Commons Attribution.


Lite Speed Photography