Puzzling BitTorrent and 3D Printing

There’s a fascinating interview of Bram Cohen on the Shapeways Blog. That name sounds familiar? It should, because he’s the inventor of BitTorrent, that famous or infamous highly efficient network transfer protocol that swept the world and changed how big media companies operator forever.

But what’s this got to do with 3D printing? Turns out that Bram is a puzzle fiend, designing highly complex 3D puzzles using sophisticated software and a lot of imagination. And now he’s using Shapeways as the service platform to build and sell his creative 3D puzzles in physical form.

It’s ironic, you might figure, that someone who invented something that dramatically affected intellectual property rights is now selling his own intellectual property on Shapeways. But Bram doesn’t see it that way. From Shapeways Blog:

I have a lot less interesting in the subject of intellectual property than most people seem to expect. I have an interest in networking protocols, and also one in puzzles, both of which happen to bring up intellectual property issues, but I deal with such issues of necessity, not because I particularly care about them. There is the interesting question of how to get puzzles produced, and also how to try to make money off of their production, which ideally I’d like to do, but that’s a secondary issue, since obviously it’s impossible to make money off a puzzle which people aren’t very interested in even if it’s free.


In some sense that already exists and I post my own stuff to it – the ‘Puzzle will be played’ burr site has a huge collection of burr puzzles, and most of my experience with burr puzzles comes from rebuilding most of the puzzles from that site in Burrtools. Only a tiny fraction of all puzzles have any commercial value whatsoever, so piracy isn’t really an issue for them. Among the puzzles with a little bit of commercial value, the few people and companies who make them are generally quite strict about only producing things with permission, because the community is small enough that there’s little gain and a lot of potential ostracism from doing otherwise. For the rare puzzle which has so much commercial potential that it might attract real knockoffs, the two approaches are to either make a brand-based premium version, as the Rubik’s Cube does these days, or to ramp up supply ahead of the knockoffs while the fad moves along, as the Rubik’s Cube completely failed to do when it was first introduced. Patents don’t in practice help all that much. All of that is in the ‘good problem to have’ category though – most mechanical puzzles simply fail commercially, and it’s unusual for one to succeed enough for knockoffs to be a concern.

And that’s the truth: Bram is simply an inquisitive person who solves puzzles, like the one about transferring data efficiently. He didn’t take on the music and movie industries; it was those who used his technology who did.

And that brings us back to 3D Printing. It’s a technology, just like BitTorrent, and can be used for good or evil. It’s up to us, the users and pioneers of the technology to see what we can make of it.

Via Shapeways

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