Well, that didn't take long. It's only been a few days since Defense Distributed debuted its working 3-D printed, all-plastic gun and, as they suggested was a possibility, the government has swooped in and seized the company's website.
The U.S. State Department ordered the gun maker to remove the 3-D plans for the Liberator because it violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulation, a law designed to stop the export of weapons. In its letter to Defense Distributed, the government agency said that under ITAR, "disclosing (including oral or visual disclosure) or transferring technical data to a foreign person, whether in the United States or abroad, is considered an export."
So uploading files to the Internet is now considered "exporting."
While Defense Distributed has complied with the government's demand to take down the files, it's not so easy to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Before the State Department acted, the plans were uploaded to bit torrent sites around the world and they continue to multiply today, and Pirate Bay, the underground peer-to-peer file sharing site, has them as well. The files have been downloaded more than 100,000 times already, though no guns have been reportedly made.
As company founder Cody Wilson notes, "To think this can be stopped in any meaningful way is to misunderstand what the future of distributive technologies is about."
It's also not the first time the State Department has stepped in like this. In 2007, Apple had exports of its Macintosh G4 limited because of the power and speed of its processor and the fear it could be used for military applications. But whether plans for plastic parts fall into a category typically reserved for blueprints of ballistic warheads is still to be determined.
While this fight is nominally about guns (and the Constitution's Second and First Amendments), the issue is really much broader: the real revolution that 3-D printing and "distributive technology" is launching; the ability to spread ideas outside the confines of the usual controlled channels that underpins the proliferation of the hardware because there is no regulation, no tax, no limit to what the individual can achieve in the privacy of his home.
3D Systems is unwittingly supplying the armaments of battle through its next-generation Cube 3D printer, which made its debut at office supply retailer Staples for just under $1,300. As I've noted in the past, it was getting through the $1,000 pricing level that helped Hewlett-Packard's inkjet printers enjoy explosive growth.
In reality, it was always possible for handy people to build guns in their house. 3-D printing is just putting the capabilities into the hands of everyone and making it easier to do. Although that's currently reserved for those who can afford the pricey printers and consumables, soon -- when 3-D printers are as ubiquitous as inkjet printers -- being able to operate outside the watchful eye of the state is what unnerves opponents most.
The genie has been let out of the bottle and the reverberation of the Liberator's first shot is like a thunderclap. Where investors naturally wondered first what the impact the Liberator would have on Smith & Wesson Holding and Sturm, Ruger, the real revolution, the real place to profit, will be in the industry's vanguard of printer makers 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Dassault Systems and their fantastic machines.
It's more than just about Defense Distributed and the State Department's failed attempt to contain file sharing. Information wants to be free and following the "picks and shovels" providers of this newest gold rush will stand an investor well.
Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems, Apple, and Stratasys. It owns shares of 3D Systems, Apple, Staples, Stratasys, and Sturm, Ruger and has the following options on 3D Systems: short Jan. 2014 $36 calls and short Jan. 2014 $20 puts. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.