Carnegie Mellon Professor Golan Levin with a pile of 3D-printed adapters between construction toy sets.
This story appears in the April 23, 2012, issue of Forbes Magazine.
Last year Golan Levin’s son decided to build a car. Aside from the minor inconvenience of being 4 years old, the younger Levin faced an engineering challenge. His Tinkertoys, which he wanted to use for the vehicle’s frame, wouldn’t attach to his K’Nex, the pieces he wanted to use for the wheels.
It took his father, an artist, hacker and professor at Carnegie Mellon, a year to solve that problem. In the process he cracked open a much larger one: In an age when anyone can share, download and create not just digital files but also physical things, thanks to the proliferation of cheap 3-D printers, are companies at risk of losing control of the objects they sell?
In March Levin and his former student Shawn Sims released a set of digital blueprints that a 3-D printer can use to create more than 45 plastic objects, each of which provides the missing interface between pieces from toy construction sets. They call it the Free Universal Construction Kit. The tens of thousands of consumers who now own devices such as MakerBot’s $1,100 Thing-O-Matic can download those files and immediately print a plastic piece that connects their Lego bricks to their Fischertechnik girders, their Krinkles to their Duplos, or half a dozen other formerly incompatible sets of modular plastic blocks, sticks and gears.
One blog called it the “ultimate nerd dad triumph.” But as the project’s unprintable acronym implies, Levin and Sims are out to raise hackles—particularly those of intellectual property lawyers. “This isn’t a product. It’s a provocation,” says Levin. “We should be free to invent without having to worry about infringement, royalties, going to jail or being sued and bullied by large industries. We don’t want to see what happened in music and film play out in the area of shapes.”
A matrix of Levin’s and Sims’ adapters for every supported construction set. (Click to enlarge)
Levin and Sims didn’t just make near replicas of the commercial toys, they used a measurement tool called an optical comparator to copy the toys’ dimensions to within 3 microns. And then they published those models on the Web. “Our lawyers were a bit concerned,” admits Levin, so much so that the pair initially planned to release the project anonymously.
Levin counts himself part of F.A.T. Lab, a hacktivist collective, and he wouldn’t be the first of its members to get into trouble. One of them had his PCs confiscated by the Secret Service last summer after installing software on Apple store computers that secretly took photos of shoppers’ faces.
Levin and Sims have been more careful. The patents on all the toys integrated in their kit expired years ago. But a copyright lasts many decades longer than a patent, and that’s the cudgel lawyers are using against downloadable objects. In June of last year Paramount sent acease-and-desist notice to the designer of a 3-D printable cube that resembled the alien technology from the film Super 8. In December the company Games Workshop used copyright takedown notices to pressure the 3-D printing site Thingiverse into removing fan-uploaded designs for 3-D printable figurines from the game Warhammer.
Just a month later the Swedish copyright-flouting site the Pirate Bay began devoting a section to downloadable objects. One file, for instance, allows users to make 3-D prints of the Guy Fawkes mask from the film V for Vendetta. The mustachioed mask is the favorite symbol of the hacker group Anonymous, whose anticorporate members would much rather pirate the disguise than allow Time Warner, which owns the copyright, to profit from its sale.
A Lego spokesperson says the company has no problem with Levin and Sims’ work but is keeping an eye out for printed objects that infringe on its brand. Neither Hasbro nor any of the smaller companies that sell construction toys responded to requests for comment. So far the pair haven’t received a cease-and-desist letter.
As long as Levin and Sims stick with functional objects rather than aesthetic ones, they should be able to steer clear of copyright and trademark law, says Michael Weinberg, a lawyer with the nonprofit Public Knowledge who advised on the project. “You probably can’t stamp the name Lego on them, but if you don’t it’s hard to imagine what rights the companies could assert,” he says. “The real lesson is the vast majority of physical things aren’t protected by intellectual property law.”
Even so, Levin calls his project a “shot across the bow” of any company that wants to limit and control how their physical designs are copied, remixed or improved in the future. “Yes, it’s just a toy. But it’s also a harbinger of what’s to come. Things are going to get complicated.”