An intellectual property lawyer considers the philosophical and legal consequences of a world where anything can be printed and copied.
…new technologies promise to do for a variety of physical goods and even services what the Internet has already done for information. 3D printers can manufacture physical goods based on any digital design. Synthetic biology has automated the manufacture not just of copies of existing genetic sequences but any custom-made gene sequence, allowing anyone who want to create a gene sequence of their own to upload the sequence to a company that will “print” it using the basic building blocks of genetics. And advances in robotics offer the prospect that many of the services humans now provide can be provided free of charge by general-purpose machines that can be programmed to perform a variety of complex functions. While none of these technologies are nearly as far along as the Internet, they share two essential characteristics with the Internet: they radically reduce the cost of production and distribution of things, and they separate the informational content of those things (the design) from their manufacture. Combine these four developments – the Internet, 3D printing, robotics, and synthetic biology – and it is entirely plausible to envision a not-too-distant world in which most things that people want can be downloaded and created on site for very little money.
The role of IP in such a world is both controverted and critically important.