Do you really need "IT controls" on the blueprints of your products? Probably not

Here are a couple of comments about the article “3D Printing: IP Vulnerability and Information Technology”, which are directly related to the EU research project DiDIY (Digital DIY) in which I am participating these days. In my opinion, THE most relevant paragraph of that article, the one that should receive more attention, is this:

“It may also become more difficult to secure digital blueprints within the supply chain and companies who believe they will never give their suppliers or customers digital blueprints may be living in a fool’s paradise. For example, companies may prefer that their customers 3D print parts from official digital blueprints, rather than scanning parts and 3D printing their own parts from the scans."

Because what that paragraph implies is, more or less:

In reality, regardless of how well you do it, “securing the crown jewels” as described in that article will often be completely useless, as far as “IP protection” is concerned. It’s like taking a picture of your front lawn, putting the memory card it’s stored in inside a bank safe, and expecting that whoever wants the same image… will try to steal the card from the bank, instead of driving by your home with THEIR camera.

For most products, people who want to copy them won’t need or care at all for your “precious”, “original” blueprints. They’ll use devices like those in the picture above to 3D-scan and 3D-print, period, without you ever knowing. For a real-world proof, just ask TSA how they brilliantly managed to make sure that everybody may soon open their “TSA-approved” master locks. It may even be much easier to rebuild usable blueprints in this way, than it is to reverse-engineer software!

So the one real reason (and still a really valid one, I’d say) to “secure” the original blueprints may, in many cases, be to make it easy to declare which digital fabrication shops are the only authorized resellers of “original” spare parts for your products, because they will be the only places that will offer:

  • certified blueprints AND (much, much more important than the blueprints!),
  • certified providers of robust, non-toxic 3D-printing filaments
  • certified technicians to use, as originally intended, all of the above
  • etc etc..

But forget, except for very special products (please DO provide examples!) about “protecting your precious blueprints” as a meaningful way to prevent others to make unauthorized copies of your products. Of course, this is equivalent to say that many producers will have to justĀ give up their current control/supply/business models, which at this point may survive only if we could travel back in time (but why?), and adopt new models before others do it.

Again on the futility of blocking bit copies

The CIOreview website where I found the article disables the mouse right button. Instead of the pop-up menu you get a message saying that content is “copyright protected”. So, to copy and paste here the quote above, I highligthed it with the left button, then came here, and clicked the right button. The morale? It is the same of point 1: you can’t prevent others from copying bits, or creating their owns. It’s only (mildly) annoying for them, and sometime embarrassing for yourself. It’s much better to find other ways to cope with the digital world. Which by the way is not a new strategy at all. It’s just what companies like Red Hat have been doing for decades now, dealing with Free/Open Source Software.

Another way to summarize my point: your crown jewels are NOT your blueprints. It’s the services, and guarantees, that you build around them.

Just as it happens in companies like Red Hat, that make money with Free/Open Source Software.