A company run by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold has obtained a patent for a technology that could be used to impose digital rights management (DRM) on 3D printing. According to Antonio Regalado, business editor of , Myhrvold’s new system “could prevent people from printing objects using designs they haven’t paid for.”

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The system is referred to as a “Manufacturing control system” on the patent document found on the web site of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The patent is number 8,286,236, was filed on Jan. 31, 2008, and was issued on Oct. 9, 2012.

The patent is assigned to The Invention Science Fund I, LLC, of Bellevue, Wash., which is an entity used by Myhrvold to hold most of his own inventions. Myhrvold is CEO of Intellectual Ventures, which describes itself as “a privately-held invention capital company” that is “building a market for invention by making invention a profitable activity.” The company says it has “more than $5 billion under management and more than 40,000 IP [intellectual property] assets in active monetization,” constituting “one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing intellectual property portfolios.” The company monetizes its inventions through patent licensing.

Conventional DRM is a system that restricts the use of copyrighted material. DRM might be used, for example, to make sure that only the person who bought it can play a song or read an ebook, or to assure that the material can only be played or read on a certain brand of device. According to Michael Weinberg, a lawyer at Public Knowledge, an organization that advocates for Internet openness and public access to knowledge, Myhrvold’s invention would work in a similar way for 3D-printed objects. He tells Regalado,

You load a file into your printer, then your printer checks to make sure it has the rights to make the object, to make it out of what material, how many times, and so on. It’s a very broad patent… This is an attempt to assert ownership over DRM for 3D printing. It’s ‘Let’s use DRM to stop unauthorized copying of things.’

Before printing a DRM-protected object, the user of a 3D printer might have to pay a licensing fee to the patent-holder for the object, if a patent exists for it.

Cory Doctorow, writing on , asserts that “Like other DRM systems, this won’t work,” because “it will either have to be so broad in its parameters for recognizing prohibited items that it will balk at printing innumerable harmless objects, or it will be trivial to defeat by disguising the objects beyond the system’s ability to recognize them.” He also thinks that it’s a bad idea because “it will require designing 3D printers so that they keep secrets from their owners, opening up the possibility that this facility will be exploited by bad guys to do bad things to the printers’ owners.”

Photo credit for 3D printer, MakerBot. Drawing from Intellectual Ventures’ “Manufacturing control system” patent.

+ Public Knowledge

+ Intellectual Ventures