You wouldn’t steal a car…but you might illegally download one.

You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a television. You wouldn’t shoplift a handbag. But you might pirate a feature film. Please don’t, it’s stealing. This is the anti-piracy message we have all come to know (and often ignore) at the beginning of our many movie-watching experiences.

To this warning I have often heard friends laugh: “No I wouldn’t steal a car, but I might download a copy of one!” The key psychological hurdle – and problem for the movie and music industries – has been the perceived difference between taking an item from its rightful owner for your personal use and copying that item in a way that does not remove it from anyone else’s possession. You’re not taking the movie away from anyone else, so what’s the big deal? Production houses are mega-rich, and what you’re really doing is just eating into their bottom line, right?

But what happens when piracy goes beyond intellectual or artistic property and enters into the realm of the real, physical object? How will we feel about it then?

When 3D polymer printing began entering the geek vernacular a few years ago it dawned on creative and techno-savvy minds as a technology of unending promise. The machines, which used to require some technical know-how to construct, cost a lot of money but their potential was enthralling. By laying down layer upon layer of plastic polymer you could, for the first time in your own home or office, perform rapid prototyping. It was an inventors dream and over the last three years particularly that dream has become more and more accessible.

These days a ready-made, pretty slick-looking and easy-to-use 3D printer can set you back only a few grand and the price point is falling all the time: just check out the Form1, which you can pre-order for US$3,299. The CAD programs you need to master in order to tell the printers what to make are also very user friendly. There have been plans (if under-funded and so unrealized as yet) to release cheap versions of 3D printers with simple design software for children to use in creating their own toys. It really will be a very accessible technology in the not-so-distant future.

A guy in New Zealand is already using a US$499 Solidoodle 3D printer to create a “replica” of the Aston Martin DB4.

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Moreover the polymers needed to create physical items cost just dollars and are constantly improving and expanding into different textures, compositions and finishes. For example, just last week a paper was published in the journal “Advanced Materials” showing a team at North Carolina State University had devised a way to use 3D printers to create “stretchable” metal.

Perhaps very soon 3D printing advocates will realize the dream of creating a printer that can entirely self-replicate, completely putting manufacture into community hands.

But while all these advances are being so rapidly made, the dark side of 3D printing is also beginning to rear its ugly head. In response to the debate on gun control in the United States recently, a group of individuals created, tested and published plans on how to print an entirely undetectable – and unregulated – plastic firearm.

And it also raises the increasingly real prospect of physical product piracy.

You can print fabrics – no seems! – plastics and metals. And with communities online devoted to sharing blueprints for different items you wouldn’t even have to do the hard work yourself. In the same way you can visit a torrent website and in one click download a film someone else has copied and uploaded you could download the plans for, say, a Gucci handbag and print yourself a perfect replica in a matter of hours and for only the cost of a few dollars in materials.

One of the glorious features of 3D printing is that you can create an item with many different, separate and moving parts all in one go, no assembly required. So how about printing a fake Tag Heuer watch? Or a Nikon DSLR camera? Or an iPhone? The polymers might not be quite there yet but innovations are always just around the corner.

RACHAEL BOLTON

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