A friend pointed me to a kickstarter for a bike holder called the clug. It was a cool idea. But the reason it showed up on my radar is because they 3D printed the prototypes and if you backed at the lowest level they would send you the STL and you could just print it yourself. Distributed manufacturing, hoorah!
But by the time I heard about the Clug it was too late to get in on the kickstarter. So I went to their kickstarted website and saw options to buy the real things, shipped to me from Canada. And where there should have been an option to buy the 3D model there was only the message:
We're hard at work getting the 3D Files ready for sale.And hard work it must be because it's said that for 6 months. So I reached out to them and found out they were having to play a legal game of CYA. A home printed doesn't go through the same QA checks and what if it fails and damaged someone's bike? The answer is if course a paragraph of legal babble attached to the download that discharges their responsibility. But apparently that's hard work, or they've just got other things they'd rather do, because so far that's not happening.
Aside, this isn't the first time a product was 3d printable and I said "I could do that" looking at nothing but pictures. That distinction goes to the square helper. But I really didn't want a square helper so I left that one alone.
So here's the head scratcher; did I steal their design? Without a doubt my design succeed, and succeed with my first try, because I had their failures to look at. I'm not a lawyer but I suspect there's nothing wrong with just looking at a thing and making your own based on what you see. I could probably even distribute or sell my design, though I'm planning on keeping this one to myself for now. Reverse engineering is a frustrating thing, but it's not illegal. And besides if the Clug folks had just sold me the STL like I wanted I would have had no reason to even try.
This, I think, is the moral of the story. 3D printing is ushering in a new world where design is rapid and manufacturing can be distributed, but it's also changing demand. The mantra of business has always been "give the people what they want". This story is just a glimpse. When 3D printers are in more homes and hands and people who won't keep their designs to themselves are copying every 3D printable doodad it will not be feasable to be in the business of selling doodads unless you're also ready to release the models that people want. That's a great thing for many people but a scary thing for a few.