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Business Manufacturing

New Technology Clouds the IP Landscape

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John Maeda, RISD President.

The tech trifecta of Internet, cloud computing, and 3D printing tantalizes investors and consumers with the promises of lower distribution costs, increased productivity, reduced prices, and the free movement of information. But, as RISD President and Techonomy 2013 participant John Maeda argues in a recent LinkedIn post, contradictions abound for those in the business of creating goods and information.

The Aaron Swartz case shed light on the struggle by some to liberate academic research from the confines of its cloistered pay-wall. From authors to app developers, the creators of intellectual property often cede control of their output to dominant transactional structures that meter distribution. Maeda cites 3D printing as a timely example. Yes, the 3D printing service Shapeways allows anyone to showcase objects in a virtual marketplace for the public to peruse and purchase. Yet, according to Maeda, the criteria behind how this market is curated are less than transparent. “When the website tells you your object is ‘rejected as unprintable,’ is it for technical reasons? Legal infringement? Or something else?” writes Maeda. “What’s clear is that even in a world with all the walls opened, we’ve learned that someone will be in control.”

Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen believes that the age of mass customization in the name of creative commerce is upon us, limited only by our imagination and the laws of physics. But while Maeda aligns himself with this conception of the maker movement, he cautions that all creators must understand that “between producer and consumer is an array of complex dynamics.”

Maeda’s questions force us to consider the murkier implications of new technologies. Technology creates possibilities, but also creative problems. Who dictates the rules and the values of the intellectual property game in the cloud—the producer of that content or whoever controls the platform? Who decides whether a working firearm can be 3D printed?

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