INNOVATE

Inventor's Dilemma

A 3D printer knew its technology would let customers' imaginations run wild. But it never anticipated anyone would come up with this.
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Most people who want a gun go to a dealer. Others are a little more do-it-yourself. One online group wants to "create freely available plans for 3D printable guns." Sort of a "Have Printer, Will Travel" concept. Only, the effort has been temporarily stopped in its tracks. How the whole incident unfolded offers an object lesson for any start-up that both uses and trades in technology.

The online collective, called Defense Distributed, had leased an appropriate printer from Stratasys for $20,000 and was getting ready to fire it up, when Stratasys said that printing ready-to-fire weapons wasn't an appropriate use of the printer. So the company told Cody Wilson, director of the group, that it wanted the printer returned, according to the Wired story. Wilson argued that the use wasn't illegal and that the guns wouldn't be for sale.

Stratasys's legal counsel wrote back: "It is the policy of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its printers to be used for illegal purposes. Therefore, please be advised that your lease of the Stratasys uPrint SE is cancelled at this time and Stratasys is making arrangements to pick up the printer," stated the letter, which Wilson posted to Defense Distributed's website.

Contractors traveled to Wilson's apartment the next day and retrieved the printer.

For entrepreneurs, the question of whether the intended use was illegal isn't the primary one. The big issue is that new technology can make amazing things happen, but often they aren't what the inventors anticipated. It's like the science fiction short story "The Dead Past" by Isaac Asimov, in which researchers come to the bitter realization, all too late, that a time-viewing machine could let you spy on anyone because, after all, when does the past begin: a century ago, or mere milliseconds?

It's not as though this is a new problem. Not too long ago, lecherous videographers realized that some night vision video systems would let them peer through clothing to see naked figures. The inventors of the Internet probably didn't consider issues of copyright infringement and online child porn. Encryption gave private communications access to both terrorists and cheating spouses. Practitioners of corporate espionage have undoubtedly made profitable use of smartphone camera capabilities.

There are potential problems on either side of the fence. If you use technology, you might suddenly find that a company objects to your use of it. And if you're the technology manufacturer, innovative exploits could potentially put you in a difficult place, or even damage your brand.

Licensing terms can be useful, as they were to Stratasys. Even more important, though, is stretching the imagination. Don't assume that the use you see for your product or service is the only possible one. Not only will the exercise be good for risk management, but in the process you might find entirely new markets and audiences that could give your business a boost.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Defense Dist.
Last updated: Oct 2, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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