On stealing my ideas

So, as part of this Coursera design course, I’m learning a lot about how people value their own ideas. One of the discussions among the students is about “how to avoid people stealing your ideas”.

Firstly, I should point out that each discreet chunk of your work is reviewed by five of your peers and you review the work of five random peers, meaning you don’t actually see the whole of someone’s project, just random bits of random projects. And with over 30,000 people taking the course,  the risk of someone nicking your idea, if you’re really worried about it, is limited.

But some of the discussions are entertaining. Including a few people who are “only going to design something a bit rubbish so they don’t give away their really good ideas”.

This all seems to overlook the fact that nothing is truly original and we always build on the work of those who come before us.

So rather than worry that someone will steal my ideas, I thought it better to take a leaf out of the open source book and publish my work on this blog as I go. Then, not only can people steal it, they can improve on it, or join me in making things better.

On 3D printing, and a world unready

With the recent release of the Makerbot Replicator 2, 3D printing tipped into the real world. It moved from a conceptual idea that geeks and tinkerers would try and explain to their doubtful loved ones into something you can have delivered to your door in a matter of working days.

It changes everything, and I think the world will be caught off guard.

Even now, the ~$2,000 price tag isn’t crazy. It’s more than I would pay, but plenty can afford it. And this time next year the price will halve, the resolution will double and it will print slightly bigger things. Same again the following year. In four or five years’ time, almost anyone who wants one will be able to justify the cost of a 3D printer to themselves.

I always imagined playing with Lego with my son when he’s older, but it might be we’re printing our own Lego-esque blocks too.

I can only begin to imagine what this will do to a business like Lego. Sure, it costs you more to print a block than it costs Lego to print a block, but when you pay £10 for a box of 25 Lego pieces you’re not paying for material; you’re paying for branding, marketing, packaging, tax, distribution and their profit. Printing your own blocks will definitely be cheaper for the end consumer and anyone could learn to model a number of Lego blocks in a 3D modelling tool like Sketchup in less than 4 hours.

I had a quick think about the kinds of businesses who sell cheap-to-make, but expensive-to-sell plastic products whose profit margin is primarily the relationship between their business running costs and the perceived value of the end product. I’m not saying there is no merit to the price we pay for these products today, but we’re definitely not paying manufacturing cost plus ~20%.

3D printing changes everything for businesses like these:

  • Lego
  • Tupperware
  • Airfix
  • People who sell spare parts for things like old washing machines
  • Games Workshop
  • People like Shapeways who sell 3D printing as a service (they’ll soon start to look like photocopying shops do today)
  • And there will be many more

Broke your ladle while cooking? Don’t worry, you can print a new one before you need to serve dinner.

It will almost always be cheaper to ship a solid reel of plastic in it’s compact form than the same amount of plastic in its final product form full of holes and empty spaces.

 

Gorilla Pod and Similar MakerBot tripod

In a few years time, will you buy a Gorilla Pod and wait the tedious ~18hrs for Amazon Prime next day delivery (how slow and old fashioned!) or will you print one out right then and there?

While business is a start, a lens through which we think about the future, 3D printing has implications everywhere in this world.

There’s already been plenty of coverage about the ability to print your own weapons. While you can take the plans off of public websites, the digital files are so easy to share that you can’t take them out of circulation. Weapons may well become less regulated (and regulate-able) then they are today.

In politics, what good are trade sanctions when you can move goods digitally across borders for production locally? Hyper-locally even. This is now impossible to stop. We have to re-think international trade.

In development, what does this mean for people who live in rural Kenya. Do aid organizations deliver end products they think will be useful, or spools of printing plastic to people in need?

Maybe we’ll print our own artificial limbs?

So what skills do we need to be developing? 

I don’t think we all need to be taking a course in CAD, because it’s so easy to share 3D files. They’re smaller than MP3s and much smaller than videos and we don’t seem to have any trouble moving these around the world. A few thousand skilled contributors will produce the bulk of the designs used by the billions of people around the planet. Look at all things you can already download and print today.

What’s the future for the businesses affected?


If I ran Lego, I’d be thinking about how to phase out manufacturing while retaining brand and thought leadership. Not immediately, but probably within five years, ten at most. I’d focus on selling amazing plans for kits and give up on trying to own the right to the blocks themselves. The overall size of the business would shrink, but it might be possible to maintain the profits. Selling plans digitally would hugely cut costs and by embracing this new world, Lego can be a relevant and meaningful part of it. Most likely though, they’ll unleash a team of lawyers on any website that offers 3D models of anything that looks like Lego. People will print their own blocks anyway, sales will decline and there will be plenty of negative press coverage about the company who tries to sue the 10 year old girl who made her own Lego-like designs for her friends birthday. I don’t say this because I think that’s a Lego like trait, but because it’s the way all large corporations today tend to behave when they come under threat.

In many ways, the future will be more different than we can possibly imagine.

Why patents are anti-social

Where would the human race be if the first person to do anything was the only person allowed to do that thing.

“Hey guys. Check this out. I’ve just invented the alphabet.

Would you like to use it? Sure.

I only ask for the carcass of one wild boar a week as payment for using my idea.”

If that sounds bad, imagine how much worse it would be if it wasn’t the first person to do something that owned the rights, but it was instead the first person rich enough to employ a patent lawyer that took exclusive ownership of the idea for the next ~20 years.

We now live in a world where companies buy-up other companies, not because the they want to sell their products, employ their staff or service their customers, but simply to own their patents.

Instead of protecting the entrepreneur from the competitive might of large corporations, patents now protect large corporations from the competetive threat of the entrepreneur.

Patents are inherently anti-competitive and favour the rich. If you don’t think they favour the rich, try hiring a patent lawyer or offering a 1-click payment solution on your e-commerce website.

Patents for web technologies can last close to 20-years; that’s longer than any web technology is likely to last. Instead of offering a grace period in which the inventor can establish a place in the market to benefit from their own invention, patents now offer total ownership of the marketplace for its entire lifespan.

So what’s the alternative?

How about…

  • No company or individual is allowed to own more than 5 patents in total
  • Companies with existing patents can keep them, but they cannot acquire new patents until they own less than 5
  • New patents last a maximum of 5 years
  • Patents can be sold, but they cannot be licensed
  • Create some kind of body where patents can be donated for public use, allowing inventors to patent ideas for the public good rather than private gain