On 5 December 2013, I attended a fascinating symposium on 3D Printing: Social and Cultural Trajectories held at Swinburne University. It brought together industry, military, business and academic perspectives on the emergence and popularisation of 3d printing as a technology, a practice and a cultural form.

My paper focused on the relationship (or lack thereof) between 3D printing and peer-to-peer distribution networks, with particularly interest in The Pirate Bay who attempted to strategically position themselves as a locus of 3D printable designs or, as they dubbed them, physibles.

Here’s the slides and abstract from my paper:

In January 2012, the (in)famous BitTorrent hub The Pirate Bay (TPB) launched a new section dubbed ‘Physibles’, featuring links to files containing various 3d printable designs. The blog post announcing the new section argued with revolutionary zeal that in an era where most media and data are “born digital”, the “next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects … We believe that things like three dimensional printers, scanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare parts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years” (WinstonQ2038, 2012). Yet, despite The Pirate Bay’s seeming call to arms, eighteen months later the physibles section remains a tiny corner of the filesharing site, with less than 200 active files being shared, while Makerbot’s Thingiverse repository of 3d printable designs, or the print-and-sell service Shapeways, both show far more rapid growth. Moreover, a “3d Printing and Physibles” page on Facebook, launched shortly after TPB’s new section debuted, has over 39,000 likes and an active community. It is possible that the fact that TPB became the default source for 3d printable firearms designs after they were effectively banned from other repositories (Van Der Sar, 2013) has shaped the physible section; the top fifteen most seeded designed (ie shared by the most users) on TPB are either firearms of related accessories.

While the Thingiverse and other repositories have captured and held the attention of the Maker communities from which 3d printing emerged, this is beginning to change. In February 2013, HBO set and cease and desist letter, demanding that Fernando Sosa (and his company NuProto.com) stop selling a 3d printed iPhone charging dock created in the likeness of the distinctive Iron Throne from the HBO series Game of Thrones (Hurst, 2013). While the Iron Throne Dock is not the first legal battle over 3D printing (Thompson, 2012) it appears to have been one of the most high-profile battles (with the exception of the moral panic issue of 3d printing guns). Similarly, Shapeways, a popular online service selling bespoke 3d printed objects, despite only receiving 5 cease and desist letters in 2012, is proactively policing designs for those which may violate trademarks or copyright (Kharif & Decker, 2013). Where Shapeways draws the line, though, is hard to judge; a popular item on Shapeways at present is an iPhone 5 case modelled on the likeness of a Star Wars Stormtrooper.

In order to better understand the relationship between ‘piracy’ and certain aspects of 3d printing this paper will: (a) analyse the various media responses to launch of TPB’s physibles section; (b) examine the way that the physibles banner has been taken up elsewhere (for example, a “3d Printing and Physibles” Facebook page); (c) how TPB becoming the default source for 3d printable firearm designs shifted media reporting of physibles; and (d) how increasingly public cease and desist instructions from copyright holders may galvanise a more resistant ‘pirate’ movement in relation to 3d printing.


Hurst, N. (2013, February 13). HBO Blocks 3-D Printed Game of Thrones iPhone Dock. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/design/2013/02/got-hbo-cease-and-desist/

Kharif, O., & Decker, S. (2013, August 26). 3D-printed iPhone gear stirs Game of Thrones copyright clash. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/3dprinted-iphone-gear-stirs-game-of-thrones-copyright-clash-20130823-2sgeq.html

Thompson, C. (2012, May 30). Clive Thompson on 3-D Printing’s Legal Morass. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/design/2012/05/3-d-printing-patent-law/

Van Der Sar, E. (2013, May 10). Pirate Bay Takes Over Distribution of Censored 3D Printable Gun. TorrentFreak. Retrieved September 13, 2013, from http://torrentfreak.com/pirate-bay-takes-over-distribution-of-censored-3d-printable-gun-130510/

WinstonQ2038. (2012, January 23). Evolution: New category. The Pirate Bay. Retrieved from http://thepiratebay.sx/blog/203

The symposium itself was a fascinating event, with so many exciting ideas tabled. A number of the presentations are available here, while Matthew Rimmer did an outstanding job documenting and capturing the day, which he’s made available as a Storify feed.