Bitcoin and 3D Printing - A discussion of their deeper relationship
For the unfamiliar, Bitcoin and 3D Printing are two seemingly unrelated technologies. To the familiar, they are often paired together due to similarities not always made explicit. Both have been described as transformative and potentially disruptive technologies. This is perhaps because of the transformative and disruptive nature of their sister technology, bittorrent.
What do I mean by this? Lets first understand bittorrent and its predecessors. In some sense, you can think of bittorrent as an imposition by information technology upon the business models of media distribution companies. Napster performed a similar function, but was insufficiently decentralized to prevent direct attacks from media distributors. The RIAA and MPAA certainly felt the oncoming disruption and sought to respond by taking down and reforming Napster in their own image. Eventually, this helped motivate the creation of bittorrent, and by creating an open source and decentralized system, those in media distribution were forced to seek new models with a more reasonable pricing structure suitable for consumers.
Hopefully you are familiar with 3D printing (Do go look into it before we move on if you're unfamiliar as we will assume that you have some conception of it). Whether you call it 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, or rapid prototyping (for these terms are applied to a variety of different processes using different materials) these manufacturing tools represent another excursion of information technology into physical space. Additive manufacturing’s inverse, 3D scanning, helps close the digital circle in regard to 'faxing objects', and becomes cheaper and simpler as image-to-STL services proliferate, allowing anyone to create models in the commonly accepted .STL file format. (Laser-scanners are still an option if you feel you need better resolution, including open source laser-scanners ([http://makezine.com/projects/diy-3d-laser-scanner-using-arduino/]).
All of these transformative technologies have staggering implications for intellectual property, more broadly than just copyright. In a rather good and free article on IP and 3D printing (found here) the author John F. Hornick points out that IP infringement will become increasingly difficult to identify while being easy to perform, while IP itself becomes impossible to enforce and thus becomes increasingly irrelevant. Here we must pause and ask: “How will 3D printing become/remain distributed and open?” Won’t TPTB try to lock it down with DRM?
A solution to this issue already exists in RepRap, an open source 3D printer which can print its own structural parts. There are now several open source tool chains which are supported by these systems and many people who know how to build and maintain them. In fact, many of the low-cost consumer grade 3D printing systems are driven using some form (or commercial variant) of these open source systems, including even the jedi-turned-sith operation, MakerBot, at one point. With the Pirate Bay's adoption of a physical objects section, the future of open and distributed additive (polymer) manufacturing is assured.
The commercial additive manufacturing processes which make metal components have been guarded by IP and trade secrets, as well as difficulty and hazard. Yet, inroads are being made even in this area, as Professor Pearce's research group at Michigan Tech has recently demonstrated with the first open-source metal 3D printer (see https://www.academia.edu/5327317/A_Low-Cost_Open-Source_Metal_3-D_Printer).
What will be exciting to see over the coming years is how the relative development rates of the open source approach compare to commercial development. In addition to RepRaps, there are already many examples of innovation and new forms of creation used by Makers, which the commercial printing industry never would have had the time to try (see https://localmotors.com/).
A pattern starts to emerge. These robust and transformative new systems are open source and distributed, with a relatively low barrier to entry. It doesn’t matter who created these technologies, though they still deserve their due; they are immune from attack because they created and released something new into the world without attempting to control how others use them through intellectual property. It may be wise to keep an eye out for new technologies which also adopt these approaches. Open source and distributed exchanges have been mentioned, as have distributed escrow systems. Once an open source and distributed means of building reputation is generated, many new types of business might grow. Keep an eye out for a distributed 3D printing network (some of these have been set up already), which uses bitcoin to pay its participants (and hopefully the postage too). Some bittorrent users are already finding ways to further integrate bitcoin into their space (http://www.coindesk.com/bittorrent-client-integrates-bitcoin-donations/), it seems only natural that these technologies will continue to proliferate and interact.
Decentralize and open source all the things!