Could the government come after your 3-D printer?

SOPA's smoldering wreckage has barely cooled, but one online commentator is already raising its specter over the future of 3-D printing. TechCrunch published an opinion piece on the subject this past weekend, which seems to imply that the United States will have to make an all-or-nothing choice: either we let 3-D printing designs run wild and free, or we knuckle under the oppressive regime of Uncle Sam, Innovation Killer.

If 3-D printing comes under regulatory scrutiny -- and odds are that it will, in due time -- there's no reason to freak out over an imminent government lockdown destroying the industry. A 3-D printer is no more susceptible to harsh restrictions than a cassette tape or an MP3 player would be for someone's illicit music copying. A 3-D printed design is simply intellectual property, or IP. There's ample evidence that IP can be a highly profitable legal enterprise. Just ask Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), which has built its empire on layers of IP, from the patented designs of its iStuff to the billions of games, movies, and music tracks sold each year through iTunes.

The TechCrunch article suggests that devious criminals might misuse the power of 3-D printing to print out patented designs, or worse, wreak havoc with printed rifles. However, the legality of access has never been a barrier to determined criminals before, and it's not likely to be now. Instead of wringing our hands over the dangers of 3-D printed weaponry, let's look at the ways 3-D printing designs might be safely and profitably distributed. A strong connection between designer, hardware maker, and consumer will still be important -- just as they are in Apple's ecosystem.

Fight for your right to content
Every shift from physical to digital media had its lawyer fight. It started with music files, because music is the simplest and lowest-bandwidth IP you can offer to a mass market, books notwithstanding. As users got access to faster computers, better screens, and fatter Internet pipes, they started adding movies and games to their digital consumption patterns, and those had legal tussles as well. The RIAA jousted with Napster, but lost anyway. SOPA-PIPA was the MPAA's defense mechanism. Even the Publisher's Association is lobbing law bombs left and right over pirated e-books as more of its precious written words become digitized.

It's likely that there will be cease-and-desist notices for copycat designs, but history shows us that IP can be sold to a mass audience in spite of the availability of pirated variants. Smart 3-D printer manufacturers and services companies have been developing commercial 3-D design libraries for a while. I don't think any have the depth and accessibility to start creating their own network effects. It will happen in time, and the company behind that success might become the 3-D printing world's version of (Nasdaq: AMZN) -- if Amazon doesn't get there first.

Trust but verify
A few 3-D printing design libraries have sprung up in recent years. If you've got a MakerBot, the company's Thingiverse design library offers over 17,000 unique (or at least somewhat differentiated) designs. 3D Systems' (NYSE: DDD) Cubify community hasn't quite passed a thousand designs yet, but it only got off the ground a few months ago. Let's say you want a clockwork duck instead of a robohamster. The robohamster is a real thing on Thingiverse, but you'll have to make your own clockwork duck. That's the sort of oddly specific frustration to expect with design libraries that aren't mature yet. If your object looks different in your head than what's actually available, your options are pretty limited. That applies whether you want a different toy or a different look for your dinnerware.

However, this relative dearth of options presents opportunities for the right technically adept people. A hardware-start-up renaissance has begun in software-obsessed Silicon Valley, thanks in large part to low-cost 3-D printing options that make prototyping a device's design much easier and faster than it used to be. A start-up doesn't even need its own printer to make its designs real. 3D Systems and Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS) both offer on-demand printing for those with designs but no device. Send them a file and they'll send you whatever it told their printers to create.

There's plenty of room in this growing ecosystem for talented designers, either to sell their own designs or offer contract design services. Shapeways is one on-demand 3-D printing start-up that embraces its designer community, selling printouts of numerous designers' work as well as printing custom jobs. This seems like the closest thing 3-D printing has to Amazon's mix of corporate-warehoused stuff, independent salesmen of stuff, and user-generated stuff -- which in Amazon's case often takes the digital shape of an e-book.

Never fear, legitimacy's here
So, how about 3-D printed guns? According to a Business Insider piece on the subject, you can download printable gun component files from various torrent sites, a process so head-smackingly easy that BI offered working links for the curious. A normal torrent download is something you can open and use within a couple of clicks. However, it takes equipment, modeling expertise, and some machining skill to build a working gun out of 3-D printed parts -- at least according to those that have done so. Given the total time, resource, and expertise investment necessary, I'd sooner expect a criminal or would-be criminal to simply go buy a complete gun. Why risk an explosion from faulty assembly after hours of work when the real thing is just a pawn shop away?

As long as there's IP, there will be pirates trying to use it for free. If potential customers can find what they want through legitimate channels better than they can through piracy, then more will become valued customers. That's what iTunes has proven with digital content. The companies that will gain the most from 3-D printing's user-generated content are likely to be those that think more than a little bit like Apple, with a dash of Amazon. The government should have no problem with that arrangement.

3-D printing's made some investors very happy already, but it's important to keep your eyes out for the next big winners. One company you can never count out is e-tailer Amazon, who seems willing to try just about anything these days. If you're interested in the opportunity, check out the Fool's brand-new premium research service on the company. It comes with a full year's worth of detailed updates when key news hits. To dig deeper, click here now.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.