Chris Anderson on the Maker Movement: 'We're Going to Get Sued'

The Wired editor on the IP implications of DIY culture

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Anderson models an early prototype of a DIY drone, February 2009 (Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)

Chris Anderson expects to be sued. Any day now.

In a talk last night to promote his new book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, the Wired editor and Slate's David Plotz discussed -- among many other things -- the IP implications of the maker movement.

Anderson mentioned the new synergies that are developing between makers and the more established tech and manufacturing firms. GE, he pointed out, was itself founded by a tinkerer -- Thomas Edison, "the heart and soul of American industry" -- and the corporate behemoth is now tentatively trying to forge relationships with the firebrand manufacturers of the maker movement. GE, Anderson said, now sponsors maker spaces. It hosts open innovation competitions -- with the award being production by, or investment from, GE.

"Thomas Edison is an interesting example," Plotz noted, "because Thomas Edison, of course, spent much of his life using patent law -- using the law -- to destroy competitors." Patent law at this point, Plotz continued, is "obviously something that's become a terrible weight on the American economy." So what's going to happen, he asked, when the tinkerers get tinkered with -- when the makers run up against other people's patents?

"We're going to get sued," Anderson replied, matter-of-factly. "We know that. We know that. I'm going to get sued. I can tell you with certainty I'm going to be sued. I'm going to be sued sooner or later -- hopefully later."

That inevitability, though, is part of the organic disruption the Internet has brought about. "This is what the web does," Anderson said: "You're incentivized to try things out, to iterate, to throw it out there and see what happens." And that kind of freewheeling invention is bound to butt heads with a system that stridently emphasizes the "property" aspect of "intellectual property." In forums where makers -- "hobbyists turned entrepreneurs turned, you know, megalomaniacs" -- discuss IP issues, Anderson said, one thing becomes clear: "The simple answer is no one knows what the rules are." 

So as far as patent law goes, he said, there are two approaches. "You can either do a patent search and find out whether you're going to violate a patent" -- and "you probably won't get a good answer." And then, "if you do then violate a patent, the fact that you did a search first actually increases your liability."

Or, Anderson continued, "you can do what we do, which is just: Do it. Wait for the [cease-and-desist] letter. When the letter comes, try to innovate around it. If the trolls come after us, one of us is going to be brave enough to fight back. And the courts will ultimately decide."

"Have their been any suits?" Plotz asked.

"In the 3-D printer space, yeah," Anderson replied. "As a matter of fact, some of the 3-D printer companies in the open-source realm have started patenting, which just makes your skin crawl. I mean, they're so opposed to patents. They've been patenting simply defensively -- so when the letter comes, they'll have something else to throw back. It's a sad thing."

It's also a telling thing. And maybe an inescapable thing. "There's an iceberg ahead," Anderson said, "and we know that."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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