How Defense Distributed Already Upended the World

Defense Distributed's goal is to evaporate the container described by the Second Amendment, making obtaining a firearm trivial enough that even trying to place restrictions on gun manufacturing becomes useless. It may get there. But first — and not necessarily intentionally — it's leadership is in tossing 3D-printed objects into the great pool of online sharing.

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If you click on the "Manifesto" menu item at the group's website, you're taken, somewhat melodramatically, to an essay from the poet John Milton entitled, "Areopagitica: Plea for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing." Preceding any semblance of a free press in England, it, in short, rejects censorship and demands the freedom of the written word. The analogy for Defense Distributed is obvious: Attempting to constrain ideas will always be futile in the long run.

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There's another level of depth. Milton was writingn 200 years after the introduction of the printing press, the technology that forced the issue of press freedom. At one point, creating written material took time or a lot of people or both. Then it didn't. At first, the printing press was resource-intensive. Then it wasn't.

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See where this is heading? 3D printers are new and clunky and expensive. They're hard to find, even in Manhattan. But that will change, and the idea that is contained in a 3D-printable file will be as impossible to contain as a forbidden text is today. Defense Distributed is, by its existence, hoping to make the same statement that Milton is. Access to printable guns is inevitable, just as access to print once was.

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A 3D-printed LP.

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We've been through this revolution more recently. Once upon a time, people went to record stores, as some of you may remember, to purchase physical recordings of music. Then, once music could be digitized in a format, the MP3, that balanced size and quality well enough, people began to share (pirate) music files. This was a technological shift, if a mostly intangible one. Music — and then movies when that quality-size balance was reached for our newly much-faster internet connections — became much easier to obtain. And it became a lot more difficult for companies who previously sold music and movies to get people to give them money for music and movies.

It is easier to just give it away. Napster was easier to build than iTunes. The Pirate Bay was easier to maintain than Netflix. Defense Distributed's Cody Wilson wanted to set up a similar clearinghouse for 3D printed files — DEFCAD, the sharing site which was the first source for the group's 3D-printable pistol. He spoke with Slate in March.

“It’s still legal in America to make guns and have gun parts, but [3D design-sharing site] Thingiverse took those files down from its site,” Wilson told me. “So when we get to the interesting battles that are yet to come—DMCA takedown requests, physical DRM—we know those people will fold. That’s why we want to build this infrastructure early. And search is a viable way to do it.”

Wilson is talking about the intellectual property battles that arise when people publish designs for 3D printable versions of copyrighted objects. He says DEFCAD won’t censor any blueprints that come its way, and won’t respond to takedown requests from rights-holders under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. He believes that openness could make his site a popular alternative to the Thingiverse, where you can download plans for a “fight the power” pencil holder but not for a weapon—nor a Penrose Triangle that was the subject of a copyright infringement claim in February.

DEFCAD wasn't quite as robust as Wilson hoped. After the government sent Defense Distributed a letter suggesting that certain designs might violate federal prohibitions on exporting weapons, Defense Distributed pulled the files. TorrentFreak reports on what happened after next:

While Wilson promptly complied with the request to remove access to the design, it was shared so widely during the short window of availability that it is now virtually impossible to prevent any further distribution. Currently, there appears to be several torrents available for the design at The Pirate Bay and the site informs us that these will not be censored.

“TPB has for close to 10 years been operating without taking down one single torrent due to pressure from the outside. And it will never start doing that,” A Pirate Bay insider told TorrentFreak.

Digital files, once available online, can generally be counted on to be available online forever. If the State Department decides that Defense Distributed's pistol design constitutes a class one munition — a stipulation explained by Brian Fung at National Journal — it's not entirely clear what the government could do to limit their availability. The idea is out there.

The difference between Defense Distributed and The Pirate Bay is that the former is largely trying to stretch the boundaries of the law from within. Defense Distributed complied with the State Department, because it wants to show that even under existing rules, the government can't prevent the world of gun ownership from eventually being transformed.

Its Second Amendment point, though, is only a small part of the broader world of 3D design files. Wilson inadvertently stepped in front of a movement that had been quietly happening anyway, the transition of common items into shareable online patterns. As Nick Bilton suggested in a 2011 Times article, sharing 3D models may not even be copyright violations.

“Copyright doesn’t necessarily protect useful things,” said Michael Weinberg, a senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge, a Washington digital advocacy group. “If an object is purely aesthetic it will be protected by copyright, but if the object does something, it is not the kind of thing that can be protected.”

When I posed my mug scenario to Mr. Weinberg, he responded: “If you took that mug and went to a pottery class and remade it, would you be asking me the same questions about breaking a copyright law? No.” Just because new tools arrive, like 3D printers and digital files that make it easier to recreate an object, he said, it doesn’t mean people break the law when using them.

The implication in that is massive. If anything can be recreated as a 3D file, anything can be copied.

Defense Distributed sidesteps that with its own designs. Included in the files for the "Liberator," the group's 3D-printable pistol, is a text file that includes the organization's license.

Permission is granted to anyone to use this software for any purpose, including commercial applications, and to alter it and redistribute it freely ...

...with minor caveats. Defense Distributed isn't trying to control where its idea goes. Had the group tried to copyright its design — which would itself have been an interesting conversation with the government — it's not entirely clear how enforceable it would be, or what good it would have done. Now, the design is already out in the sloshing world of the internet alongside pirated copies of No Country for Old Men and The White Album, seekable through The Pirate Bay. It wasn't the MP3 and the CD burner that upended the music industry, it was the internet.

The internet will soon make 3D files into a strain on a new aspect of consumer culture — with guns, as an object in the marketplace, included. That is a much bigger deal than whether or not the Liberator is available for download. Defense Distributed and Cody Wilson may have a unique agenda. But in 3D design, their innovation mostly lies in being early. Kind of like Milton.

Photo: A 3D printer creates a design. (AP)