3D Printing, Homemade Guns, and a Race for Control
3D printing is all the rage these days – as our own Darren Haber mused, the technology democratizes production while bringing up some interesting questions on the intellectual property front. Printers that used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars now cost as little as $2,200 shipped. Benign 3D artists are attracting a following by creating open-source puzzles and guitars, while more aggressive thinkers are turning their attention to guns.
Defense Distributed, a “wiki weapon” initiative taken up by University of Texas law student Josh Wilson, aims not only to exercise second amendment rights by printing gun parts, but also to democratize gun manufacturing by establishing a wiki site where users can collectively improve on designs. Wilson certainly grabbed someone’s attention last week when his leased 3D printer was repossessed by the company making the printers. His Twitter feed openly declaring his open dislike of politicians and “socialists” may have played a role in that.
Stratasys, the printer maker, stated in a letter to Mr. Wilson that they would not “knowingly allow [their] printers to be used for illegal purposes.” But is what Defense Distributed is doing actually illegal? Regardless of Wilson’s rather blunt political views, his activities do bring up interesting legal questions. The 1968 Gun Control Act only requires a license to manufacturer arms if one intends to sell them. However, any actual printed gun can probably be categorized as a Title II-class weapon under 26 USC § 5856(e), a catch-all category for concealable firearms originally drafted to regulate crude homemade guns.
As Mr. Haber astutely pointed out, the chief problem is then one of enforcement, for printing advancements mean users can print prohibited or protected objects in the privacy of their own homes. A new patent filed last week by a company called Intellectual Ventures may hint at an initial response by traditional manufacturers. The patent covers a new form of DRM, or digital rights management, that restricts the sharing of 3D plans much in the same way purchased music and videos are restricted from being shared today. Notoriously unpopular, DRM has caused enough headaches that even giants like Apple have dropped the lock-down technology from the music it sells. It remains to be seen whether 3D printer makers will adapt to DRM. Coincidentally, Intellectual Ventures’ reputation as a patent troll means would-be enforcers may themselves be strong-armed into paying to license the technology. It appears everyone involved will have obstacles to deal with in this new legal frontier.
The Robocalls Just Won’t End
Tired of getting automated calls on behalf of political candidates or market research companies? Turns out they’re often illegal too. In response, the FTC today has issued a challenge to the public, offering a $50,000 prize for the best solution to the problem. They hope to come up with something – anything – to stop the annoyance that has irritated both ordinary citizens taking the battle to court and Washington politicians alike. The FTC issued new regulations recently to combat this annoying, robotic menace – but the federal rules don’t cover the political ads so prevalent this this year, only telemarketing. A few states like California have issued their own rules stricter than the FTC’s to curb the practice, but calls originating outside the state are fair game. FCC rules do prohibit political calls to cell phones without the recipient’s prior consent, but enforcement has been non-existent.
How do these robocalls work? As the FTC’s infographic shows, complicated global telephone and VoIP networks combine to make thousands of automated calls a minute while covering their tracks through services that fake or hide caller IDs. This not only means that regulators are dealing with multiple culprits in different jurisdictions, but they’re often impossible to track down in the first place, much less punish. Some think that robocalls may be bothersome enough to determine a Senate race or two. However, without regulatory teeth to ban the practice, it is likely our landlines and airwaves will continue to transmit robocalls that are questionably legal – and always irritating.