Will 3D Printing Upend Fashion Like Napster Crippled the Music Industry?
3D printers can manufacture spare parts for spacecraft, produce food and housing, even replicate human organs. Simultaneously, the materials used in 3D printers are improving by leaps and bounds, incorporating metals and plastics, wood and nylon. New York-based Shapeways has begun selling 3D-printed objects, including jewelry, while Continuum has created a 3D-printed bikini with plastic pieces that snap together. And a San Francisco-based entrepreneur is currently experimenting with a printer that can create garments out of polymer fabrics — the future of 3D-printed textiles.
"We are living a world in which fashion and design take on a personal element," says Jonathan Askin, a professor with the Brooklyn Law School and a consultant in Internet law. "The same way anyone is now a publisher or a music distributor, now almost everyone can become a fashion creator."
At the moment, 3D-printed fashion exists mainly in the world of haute couture. Iris Van Herpen's skeleton dress (see below) and the angel wings that debuted at the 2013 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show are artful, sure, but not particularly wearable. There's still a long way to go before we're all sporting 3D-printed blouses and yoga pants. In the world of tech, however, "a long way" can sometimes mean just a few years. If 3D-printed bracelets and rings are already well within consumers' budgets, how far behind are sneakers and tank tops?
As 3D printing evolves, it will introduce new conflicts into the already murky arena of copyright law. The community built around 3D printing embraces open-source code and designs rather than tightly protected trade secrets. MakerBot's Thingiverse is the pioneer in that space, offering all kinds of open-source, customizable and printable items, including jewelry.
"We'll no longer have to buy a suit off the rack and hope it fits. We'll no longer have to buy a dress with that particular belt or ribbon," says Askin. "We can tailor everything to suit our own specific desires."
Three-dimensional scanning and modeling means anything, including haute couture, can be reverse-engineered with enough time and effort, paving the way for major breakthroughs in counterfeiting. Hack the code for a Chanel bangle, get your hands on a MakerBot and you've engaged a brand new version of fashion piracy.
As a safeguard, the garment industry will likely lobby for the kind of comprehensive copyright protection that music and film enjoy, to protect their designs from counterfeiters. (Copyright law is what generates all those broken links for TV shows illegally shared on YouTube.)
At a recent Eyebeam Art and Technology Center panel in New York, Askin describes the situation in terms of copyright law as, essentially, the wild west. "In a world where the law is suspect, the law doesn't exist," he says.
The Chanels and the Hugo Bosses of the world are used to having their designs copied and counterfeited, though. High-end designers create luxe items, which fast fashion companies like Forever 21 and their ilk modify at a much lower price point. The couturiers don't like it, and they sue when they can. But while Chanel can police for knockoff quilted bags sold discreetly on Canal Street, they can't do much to keep Forever 21 from altering the design of a quilted bag just enough to get away with it.
"Fashion uses inspiration from previous designs to create new designs," says Liz Bacelar, founder of Decoded Fashion, at the Eyebeam panel. "There is always someone saying that [a designer] copied something, it's just the culture of creation between artists in fashion."
When and if the Thingiverse of fashion exists, companies may take the practice one step further, trafficking in selling code the way iTunes sells songs. Perhaps for $5, you'll be able to print your own Chanel bangle on a MakerBot device in your home.
For better or worse, creative competition and the occasional design theft — or "inspiration," if you're feeling generous — has always pushed the industry forward. When anyone can steal your designs, your quickest recourse is to keep innovating. Not at all coincidentally, the tech world is built on this very concept.