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From material scarcity to arti8cial abundance – The case of FabLabs and 3D printing technologies



Digital media allowed for the emergence of new artistic practices and innovative modes of production. In particular, the advent of Internet and digital technologies drastically enhanced the ability for multiple authors to collaborate towards the creation of large-scale collaborative works, which stand in contrast to the traditional understanding that artistic production is essentially an individual activity. The significance of these practices in the physical world is illustrated by the recent deployment of FabLabs: Fabrication Laboratories that employ innovative technologies – such as, most notably, 3D printing, which is recently gaining the most interest – to encourage the development of new methods of artistic production based on participation and interaction between peers. By promoting a Do It Yourself (DIY) approach, Fablabs constitute an attempt to transpose the open source mode of production from the domain of software into the field of art and design. Yet, as opposed to the information realm (where scarcity has been added artificially – by legal means – to inherently abundant resources like software and creative expression), artistic and design production in the physical world is riddled by the problem of material scarcity: physical resources are inherently limited and cannot be reproduced without using, converting or otherwise disposing of others kinds of resources.Over time, open source practices have managed to “hack” these provisions by means of contractual instruments designed to eliminate artificial scarcity so as re-instate the original state of abundance in the information realm. One has to wonder whether similar instruments could be conceived to eliminate – or,at least, reduce – material scarcity in the physical world. The underlying question that will be addressed throughout the paper is, therefore, “how could we hack the law to turn technical material scarcity into artificial material abundance?”
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
From material scarcity to arti=cial
abundance – The case of FabLabs and 3D
printing technologies
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
1. Introduction
Digital media allowed for the emergence of new artistic practices and
innovative modes of production. In particular, the advent of Internet and di-
gital technologies drastically enhanced the ability for multiple authors to col-
laborate towards the creation of large-scale collaborative works, which
stand in contrast to the traditional understanding that artistic production is
essentially an individual activity. The signi>cance of these practices in the
physical world is illustrated by the recent deployment of FabLabs (Fabrica-
tion Laboratories), that employ innovative technologies – such as, most not-
ably, 3D printing, which is recently gaining the most interest – to encourage
the development of new methods of artistic production based on participa-
tion and interaction between peers. By promoting a Do It Yourself (DIY) ap-
proach, Fablabs constitute an attempt to transpose the open source mode
of production from the domain of software into the >eld of art and design.
Yet, as opposed to the information realm (where scarcity has been added
arti>cially – by legal means – to inherently abundant resources like software
and creative expression), artistic and design production in the physical world
is riddled by the problem of material scarcity: physical resources are inher-
ently limited and cannot be reproduced without using, converting or other-
From material scarcity to artiBcial abundance
wise disposing of others kinds of resources.
Speci>cally, we refer here to the notion of artiBcial scarcity to denote a
situation whereby a resource that is technically non-rival (i.e. its consump-
tion by one person does not prevent its consumption by another person) is
turned into a scarce resource by legal or technical means. In the realm of in-
formation, this is achieved by means of intellectual properties laws (such as
copyright, trademarks, or patent law) aimed at reducing the availability of re-
sources to allow for monopoly pricing. This generally results into a dead-
weight loss for society, to the extent that some people can no longer afford
to consume information.
Over time, open source practices have managed to ‘hack’ these provi-
sions by means of contractual instruments designed to eliminate arti>cial
scarcity so as re-instate the original state of abundance in the information
realm. One has to wonder whether similar instruments could be conceived
to eliminate – or, at least, reduce – material scarcity in the physical world.
The underlying question that will be addressed throughout the paper is,
therefore, how could we hack the law to turn technical material scarcity into arti-
Bcial material abundance?
By analogy with arti>cial scarcity, we rely on the concept of arti>cial
abundance to denote a situation whereby resources that are naturally
scarce are made more abundant (or less scarce) by legal or technical means.
While it is, of course, not possible to obtain an unlimited amount of re-
sources – since physical resources are, by de>nition, scarce – we believe that
it is nonetheless possible to reduce the scarcity of certain products by rely-
ing on recycled materials, alternative energy and digital manufacturing tech-
niques in order to convert raw materials into >nished products.
To substantiate this claim, we will >rst investigate the information realm
(Section 2) to gain a better understanding of the properties of information
as a quasi-public good (2.1), how the copyright regime effectively introduced
arti>cial scarcity on a non-rival resource like information (2.2), and how the
copyleft regime actually ‘hacked’ the law to get rid of such arti>cial scarcity
(2.3). We will then look at the digital realm (Section 3), its speci>c proper-
ties (3.1) and, in particular, how the ‘meme’ of collaboration and sharing that
established itself in the digital realm has lead to the emergence of new, col-
laborative forms of artistic production (3.2) that are slowly spreading into
the physical world (3.3). Finally, we will focus on the physical realm (Section
4) to analyse the mechanisms that could contribute to eliminating the three
main barriers to abundance – raw material scarcity (4.1), exclusivity of pro-
duction tools and facilities (4.2), and improper access to knowledge and
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
skills (4.3).
2. The information realm
2.1. Information as a quasi-public good
Information is often assimilated to a public good1, to the extent that it
is both non-rival in consumption (i.e. the consumption of the resource by
one person does not affect the consumption of the same resource by an-
other person) and non-excludable (i.e. it is dif>cult, or impossible, to ex-
clude anyone from accessing or consuming the resource). As such, informa-
tion is inherently abundant, since, after it has been produced once, it be-
comes subsequently available for anyone to use, reuse or build upon.
Yet, given its non-rival and non-excludable character, information is af-
fected by the same concern that characterises many other public goods: it is
ultimately subject to free-riding, in the sense that people might bene>t from
it without covering the cost of production. The result is that, unless properly
managed, the resource will end up being over-used and/or under-produced,
because no one will have an incentive to invest in the production and/or
preservation thereof.
Yet, as opposed to most pure public goods (whose characteristics can-
not be changed), information is in fact a quasi-public good,2 to the extent
that its properties can theoretically be modi>ed by either legal or technical
means. This is the trend that we observed over the past few centuries, with
the establishment of intellectual property laws and, in particular, with the
gradual and steady extension of copyright protection.
2.2. The copyright regime: Introducing artiBcial scarcity to a non-rival
The main purpose of copyright law is to turn information – an inher-
ently non-rival resource – into a commodity that can be traded on a market
for information goods. This is done through the establishment of a series of
1 In economics, a public good is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rival in that
individuals cannot be effectively excluded from use and where use by one individual does
not reduce availability to others (Varian, 1992).
2 Information goods (such as literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works) are commonly
misclassi>ed as public goods, even though they are technically classi>ed – in economic
terms – as quasi-public goods: although they do satisfy the characteristics of a public
good, excludability is nonetheless possible (McConnell & al., 2009).
From material scarcity to artiBcial abundance
2.3. The copyleft regime: Removing scarcity from an artiBcially scarce
> ?&)#$!2*$;)&-2-!6)8;)X2*"7)'/)Theories of Surplus Value7)\: he product of mental labour ]999^)is
far below its value, because the labour time to reproduce it bears no relation to that required
for its original production9_)CO.$%1!)<7)59)>S>E9):,'&)'6!2).0)-,!)UTrage dy of t he C om m on s’
D </)!#./.1'#&7)2/)!"5!*'!/#!)+..6)'&)2)5*.6%#-).*)&!*('#!)3,!*!)5*.6%#-)#,2*2#-!*'&-'#&7)
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
Public License (GPL)5 – is a contractual provision stipulating that anyone has
the right to access and modify the source code of a particular piece of soft-
ware, but only provided that the modi>ed software is made available to the
public under the exact same conditions as the original software. This clause
(also known as the ‘share-alike’ clause) has become, over time, a central ten-
et of many Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) licenses – even though it
subsists alongside a number of more permissive licences (such as the
Apache and BSD licenses) which rely on cultural and community norms,
rather than strict legal enforcement, for ensuring the broadest availability
and sharing of knowledge.
The geniality and originality of the FLOSS model is that it does not ac-
tually enter in conMict with the copyright regime. It does, however, Mip it on
its head in order to achieve a completely different result from what it was
originally meant for. Indeed, as a copyright license, the GPL necessarily refers
to the provisions of copyright law, which constitute the legal framework in
which the license operates. Yet, as opposed to standard copyright licenses,
the GPL only relies upon the exclusive rights granted under the law as a
means to preserve – rather than preclude – users’ freedom to use, modify,
redistribute and fork software (Stallman, 1998).
Initially deployed only within the FLOSS community, the copyleft
concept has been later transposed into the realm of the arts with the emer-
gence of the Open Content movement and its corresponding licensing
schemes. While there is, today, a wide variety of licenses regulating the use
and reuse of content (for a comprehensive overview, see Liang, 2005), the
most popular are the ones elaborated by Creative Commons6, which de-
veloped a set of licenses speci>cally designed to encourage the dissemina-
tion and facilitate the reuse of original works of authorship protected by
copyright or author’s rights – while nonetheless allowing authors to main-
tain a certain degree of control over the exploitation of their works (a
move from all rights reserved’ to ‘some rights reserved’).
As opposed to the traditional perception enshrined in copyright law, for
which the creation of any original work of authorship is regarded as an indi-
vidual act of genius (Rose, 1993; Lemley, 1997), the Open Content move-
ment defends a much broader conception of creation, whereby the making
5 The GPL license is the >rst license to implement the concept of copyleft. Its legal text is
available at
6Creative Commons is a non-pro>t organization devoted to expanding the range of creat-
ive works available for others to build upon legally and to share. See
From material scarcity to artiBcial abundance
monsME#!&;#(!&)#3&),0.)*+;#0-/!#$-#information commonsNO#$#&).!1&,)#@)*!-56
3. In the digital realm
3.1. Properties of the digital world
M I4)#/)&(#,!((!-.#&)")&.#/!#$**#&).!1&,).#$,,)..0@*)#/!#$**#()(@)&.#!"#$#.!,0)/+;#0-,*126
O S-"!&($/0!-#,!((!-.#4$7)#@))-#2)L-)2#$.#$.#T0-formation and knowledge resources that
are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to
be non-excludible, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties U#8V1./)&#W!&)**;#<=>=?C
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
and movies.
Thus, underlying the legal properties of information, there are – in the
digital realm – essential technical aspects that drive the need for readjusting
the level of (arti>cial) scarcity imposed by the law.
First and foremost, the reproduction and distribution of creative works
in digital format is fast, effortless, ef>cient and nearly lossless. Digital data al-
lows for easy manipulation, modi>cation, recon>guration and transformation
– and, what’s more, it leaves the ‘original’ untouched. There is, therefore, no
requirement to hold the ‘original’, as any ‘copy’ is basically identical.
Detached from a material manifestation – even not requiring materiality
(except in the rendering engine) – digital content has all characteristics of
information in general: technical barriers to reproduction (such as the avail-
ability of materials) are no longer to be found, and given an existing and ef>-
cient distribution infrastructure, distribution of digital works comes at negli-
gible costs.
As such, the digital world has become the breeding ground for many
new forms of artistic practices based on collaboration and cooperation
amongst peers – a new model of production which was mostly unavailable to
people in either the physical economy (…) or in the industrial information eco-
nomy” (Benkler 2003, p. 1261).
3.2. Spreading the ‘meme’ of collaboration and sharing
Collaboration and sharing have always been at the core of human activ-
ity. Yet, this insight is only slowly making it into mainstream in the various
scienti>c disciplines – from developmental biology to experimental econom-
ics, researchers are only now starting to accept cooperation as a funda-
mental paradigm of development; and competition is gradually being rejec-
ted as the only driver behind technological progress (Benkler, 2011).
In the artistic realm, there has been, for a long time, much emphasis on
the idea of the ‘sole creator’ – the romantic, 19th century notion of the
genius sitting in a closed-off studio, away from the general public or other
artists creating yet another masterpiece. This vision is strongly reMected in
how legislation de>nes and protects the value of creative output.
In practice, however, creative production is, in many cases, not an indi-
vidual endeavour but a collective or cooperative effort. Even seemingly indi-
vidual works often build on what has been created before as a result of in-
spiration, citation, parody, and so forth. But while inspiration is understood
as a perfectly professional practice – just like citation and parody, which are
From material scarcity to artiBcial abundance
legally accepted forms of reusing prior works – creating derivative works
based on copies of pre-existing material without proper authorisation is
generally regarded as ‘evil’.
Yet, this vision is progressively fading out, as social norms are rapidly
evolving in the online environment, with collaboration and sharing being in-
creasingly regarded as the genesis for creativity – even though the legal
norms have remained essentially stable. Indeed, more and more users have
begun to understand that much greater things can be achieved through
sharing and collaboration than by relying exclusively on individual endeavour
and competition.
Therefore, sharing digital artefacts and contributing to the production
of large collaborative online works have become an increasingly popular and
widespread practice nowadays, which is likely to bene>t society as a whole.
On the one hand, collaboratively producing, sharing and exchanging works
amongst different communities provides authors with a greater source of
inspiration, but also gives them more control over their productivity in a
self-directed and more community-oriented way. On the other hand, the
free availability of content that can be reproduced, distributed and built
upon without restrictions gives users a range of fundamentally different op-
tions to choose from, and, indeed, requires them to make active choices in-
stead of passively accepting the mode of consumption that has been prede-
termined by the current winners in the economic system of the previous cen-
tury” (Benkler 2003, p. 1276).
In recent years, many dedicated online communities have emerged,
whose goal is not primarily to facilitate the sharing and exchange of digital
works (such as, e.g. most peer-to-peer >le sharing networks), but, >rst and
foremost, to encourage artistic dialogue and to promote collaboration or
cooperation amongst a large number of individual users (see e.g. Sourceforge
and Wikipedia). In the disciplines of photography and video, interesting devel-
opments with user generated content can also be seen on platforms such as
Flickr, Vimeo and Youtube, where users are given the possibility to respond
to a photo or video not only by writing textual comments but also by reply-
ing with another photo or video. Discourse is thus explicitly moved out of
the domain of textual language and into the domain of the visual.
All of these practices can be regarded as novel forms of artistic ex-
change that – due to the material, spatial and temporal restrictions of the
physical world – were hardly ever practiced before (Nardi 2005, Lange
2007). Early adoptions of this new form of dialogue can even be found on
platforms for sharing physical ‘things’ as for instance on Thingiverse.
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
3.3. The impact in the physical world
Inspired by the open source model of production, the social practices
of collaboration and sharing have taken a >rm hold in artistic production,
also in the digital realm. Indeed, with the advent of modern, computer-con-
trolled manufacturing tools (such as 3D printing technologies or CNC ma-
chines), the open source model of production is being progressively trans-
posed to the physical realm, where it can be employed for the production of
physical works.
Indeed, in the physical world, the traditional approach to artistic pro-
duction being the result of the creative endeavours of an ‘individual genius’
is more and more challenged by an alternative form of production based on
a more collaborative peer-to-peer approach – a system whereby many indi-
viduals (professional, artists or amateurs) can contribute with their own
skills, ideas or resources towards the practical implementation of an art-
work in common.
Software programs for digital design form part of the tool-chain that
creators use to gradually turn an idea into its material manifestation. Often
these are the same programs that are used to produce digital output, and in-
terim results are stored as digital datasets that differ in no way from the
datasets of digital output. Computer-controlled production machinery –
laser cutters, mills, 3D printers – are subsequently employed to generate
physical objects from these datasets. The past decade has seen an exponen-
tial growth in the availability of such machinery. Professional service bureaus
offer materialisation of digitally designed artefacts in almost any size, materi-
al, and quality. Publicly accessible shared machine shops such as FabLabs are
spreading, offering the use of computer-controlled production machinery to
everyone at affordable cost.
By providing a common platform for tools, materials, and technical
training, FabLabs and public machine shops provide all physical means for ex-
perimenting with new models of production based on cooperation among
peers. Indeed, if the model of peer-production can be easily employed for
the production of digital content (which can be easily replicated and modi-
>ed without affecting the original), it >ts equally well with the digital tool
chain and computer-controlled machines for the production of physical
products. Several communities and platforms have sprung up to encourage
collaboration and promote the sharing of (at least) the interim results of
production (e.g. Instructables, Thingiverse, Wevol ve). These platforms are not
yet as common as those in the purely digital environment, since novel forms
of artistic dialogue have yet to develop. However, we can already observe
From material scarcity to artiBcial abundance
emerging movements around concepts such as ‘Open Design’ and ‘Open
Hardware’ which aim to replicate the principles of copyleft in the physical
Yet, while the values of collaboration can easily be transposed into the
physical world, the principle of sharing does not properly >t with one major
constraint of the material world: the scarcity and limited malleability of (ma-
terial) resources.
4. The physical realm
In contrast to information – which is inherently intangible – and the di-
gital world, which can be regarded (for all practical purposes) as an intan-
gible resource, the physical world is characterized by technical excludability
and material scarcity. Thus, all resources that can be observed in the physical
world are, by virtue of their materiality, both rival and excludable by default.
It is nonetheless useful to distinguish between three different types of
resources, which distinguish themselves according to the role they play in
the production chain. The >rst type comprises all raw materials that are
used up in production (such as steel, wood, plastic, gas or electricity) and
which are thus no longer available afterwards. The second type refers to all
production facilities or infrastructures which are used in the process of pro-
duction, but which remain available for further use and reuse (even though
they might, eventually, deteriorate). The third type is the output of produc-
tion: the resources that have been produced after a variety of raw materials
have been assembled at one or more production facilities, where they have
been processed with speci>c tools or machines and applying speci>c pro-
cessing knowledge.
In this regard, it might be worth distinguishing between the ‘natural
scarcity’ of materials, which is essentially due to their inherent characterist-
ics as physical goods, and the ‘arti>cial scarcity’ that is created by technical
means. Indeed, the current system of production based on capitalist prin-
ciples introduces an additional layer of scarcity over certain types of
products (mainly of the third type) by concentrating most of the knowledge
and means of production into the hands of a few large corporations, so that
people no longer have the ability to produce the products they need by
their own means.
It is worth noting, however, that in the information realm, as copyright
introduced arti>cial scarcity and excludability over a non-rival good like in-
formation, speci>c legal tools (such as Creative Commons and other liberal
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
copyright licenses) were able to eliminate such scarcity by legal and contrac-
tual means. The objective of this section is, therefore, to determine whether
or not a similar effect could be achieved in the physical world. In other
words, is it possible to turn a naturally scarce resource into an arti>cially
non-rival resource, by either legal or technical means?
To answer this question, we will identify and analyse various mechan-
isms that could be employed to eliminate or, at least, reduce material
scarcity and excludability from physical resources – taking into account that
the preferred mechanism will always and necessarily depend on the type of
resources that are being dealt with.
Thus, referring back to the three types of resources identi>ed above
(raw materials, production tools or facilities, and resulting end-products), we
will investigate – for each of them – whether it is possible (and useful) to
reduce the level of scarcity and/or excludability that they are naturally asso-
ciated with.
In particular, we contend that – even though it is currently in an early
stage of development – 3D printing could signi>cantly reduce (and eventu-
ally eliminate) material scarcity for the third type of resources (end-
products). Yet, this objective can be achieved only insofar as we can identify
ways to (1) reduce material scarcity for the >rst type of resources (raw ma-
terials); (2) decrease the degree of excludability for the second type of re-
sources (production tools and facilities); (3) provide free access to all the
knowledge necessary to operate these tools and to produce the expected
4.1. Reducing scarcity of raw materials
Beyond economic instruments such as >xed prices9 or discrimination
amongst consumers10, various mechanisms can be employed to turn raw
9 Imposing a >xed maximum price over certain raw materials, production tools or infra-
structures can, to some extent, reduce the degree of excludability of these resources.
Yet, although more people will potentially have access to these resources, this solution in
no way constitutes a solution to the more generic problem of material scarcity and ex-
10 Price discrimination consists in selling the same products at different prices to different
customers, according to their corresponding willingness to pay for these products. The
advantage for the suppliers is that price discrimination enables them to charge the max-
imum possible price for each unit sold, so as capture all available consumer surplus.
While customers are thus left without any surplus, they are, however, all able to bene>t
from the consumption of these products, insofar as they are – at least – willing to pay
for the marginal costs of production (Varian, 1989).
From material scarcity to artiBcial abundance
materials into a more abundant or less excludable resource.
In terms of excludability, abolishing property (or introducing temporary
property rights) is a potential solution aimed at eliminating the legal possibil-
ity for the owner of a non-used resource to exclude others from bene>ting
from it. Although legally sound, this solution does not, however, encroach on
the attributes of physical resources; they remain inherently rival. It does not,
as such, resolve the problem of natural scarcity, nor does it eliminate the
possibility for people to exclude others from accessing a resource by tech-
nical or physical means. Hence, while in the information realm resources are
inherently non-rival in consumption and there is thus no incentive to >ght
over them, in the physical realm scarcity will necessarily lead to people >ght-
ing over who does or should actually own every available resource. This is,
indeed, one of the main justi>cations why the regime of property rights was
implemented in the >rst place (Castle, 1978).
With regards to decreasing the scarcity of raw materials, one could
imagine a situation whereby people could freely take certain types of mater-
ials from a common pool of resources whose ownership is shared amongst
all members of a community, but only provided that they commit to giving
back a similar amount of the same kind of materials in a given period of
time (give-back provision).11 The advantage of this approach is that it would
make it possible to provide free raw materials to a certain community, while
nonetheless preventing the common pool of resources from being depleted
by guaranteeing a constant and gradual renewal of resources.
Finally, in the case of raw materials, perhaps the most obvious way to
reduce material scarcity is to adopt material saving techniques. Additive
manufacturing processes – commonly known as 3D printing – offer great
prospects here as they allow to build structures that consist of the minimal
amount of material in exactly those places where a structure would need it
to respond to mechanical stress. Such geometries are hardly attainable with
other manufacturing methods.
Material scarcity can also be reduced through extensive recycling or up-
cycling, i.e. by turning old neglected resources into raw materials, so as to
produce a whole new set of resources without consuming any more raw
Finally, it is possible to use alternative, naturally growing materials (such
11 For instance, a pot-maker could take as much clay as allowed by community rules, but -
after a determined amount of time (e.g. from 1 to months) – he would have to put back
one kilogram of clay into the common pool for every kilogram of clay that has been
taken from it.
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
as bamboo and other bio-based materials) as a complement or, eventually, as
a supplement to other resources which are either more scarce or more dif-
>cult to obtain.
4.2. Shared tools and production facilities
In the case of technical facilities, tools or infrastructures which persists
over time, the focus is not so much on reducing scarcity, but, rather, on elim-
inating (or reducing) excludability – so that a maximum number of people
can bene>t from their use.
One possibility is to establish public FabLabs or high-tech workshops in
a variety of cities so as to provide public access to tools and facilities that
people might need, in the same way as we have public libraries providing
public access to information. These facilities can be regarded, to some ex-
tent, as ‘libraries of peer-production’: shared spaces where anyone can come
and learn new skills or use speci>c tools, whenever the need arises. Indeed,
most people only seldom need a laser-cutter or a 3D printer – and, given
the costs of these tools, they are unlikely to purchase them. Yet, in a few oc-
casions, these tools could actually help people achieve a task that would,
otherwise, only be achievable by delegation to large corporation or industri-
al companies. The idea underlying the implementation of public FabLabs or
workshops is, therefore, to gather a variety of tools into one single place or
facility, to subsequently allow people to access these tools – under speci>c
conditions – only when they actually need them.
These infrastructures can be provided either by the state (which
already provides public libraries as part of its mission) or speci>c communit-
ies that believe in the idea that everyone from the community should have
access to certain tools or facilities. Private actors might also engage in the
provision of similar production infrastructures, to the extent that they are
not concerned with pro>t-maximisation, but merely with the long-term sus-
tainability of the service they provide. By analogy with the concept of Infra-
structure as a Service (IaaS) for cloud computing, the provision of such pro-
duction facilities and tools is akin to providing Resources as a Service’ – a
model whereby people only ‘pay’ for the amount of resources they actually
need or use. Although this can be done through traditional renting or lend-
ing techniques, many FabLabs decided to experiment with a variety of differ-
ent approaches, using traditional co-op or more innovative mutual
strategies, covering expenses through membership contributions and bench
fees, employing various types of voluntary contributions, establishing barter
systems, or a mix of the above.
From material scarcity to artiBcial abundance
Decentralized options also exist. As people are increasingly realizing
that most of the tools or machines they own are often signi>cantly under-
used, various initiatives have been created (such as Zipcar for cars) whose
goal is to bring excess capacity to a minimum. The goal is to maximise the
access to and usage of speci>c resources by providing a platform encour-
aging people to share or lend the resources they own to others needing
them (Sundararajan, 2013). This is the concept behind the emerging concept
of ‘collaborative consumption’12 – a concept initially coined by Felson &
Spaeth (1978) and subsequently popularized by Botsman & Rogers (2010) in
their book What’s mine is yours’ – according to which people are increasingly
consuming goods in a collaborative rather than individual manner, so that
access to a resource is gradually becoming as important – if not more im-
portant – than property (Gansky, 2010).
4.3. Free access to knowledge and skills
Of course, public access to production facilities, even if combined with a
large abundance of raw materials, is only useful to the extent that people
have the necessary knowledge and skills to use the production infrastruc-
ture. Given that the underlying functions and functionalities of most
products are hidden to the inexperienced eye, unless one wants to engage
into reverse-engineering to try and >gure out how a product is made and
how it works, people need to be given exact instructions as to how to pro-
duce the products they need. This is the mission that motivates initiatives
such as Makezine.com13, Hackaday.com14, or Instructables.com15 where
12 The term ‘collaborative consumption’ was >rst coined by Felson & Spaeth (1978) in a
paper dealing with the practice of car-sharing as a means for car owners who make only
occasional use of their vehicle to bene>t from the lending of their car to people who
only need occasional access to a vehicle.
13 Make is an American quarterly magazine published by Maker Media which focuses on Do
It Yourself (DIY) and/or DIWO (Do It With Others) projects involving computers, elec-
tronics, robotics, metalworking, woodworking and other disciplines. The magazine is mar-
keted to people who enjoy making things and features complex projects which can often
be completed with cheap materials, including household items.
14 Hack a Day is an online magazine devoted to publishing and archiving the best hacks,
mods and DIY (do it yourself) projects from around web.” Founded in 2004, Hack a Day pub-
lishes new hacks every day as well as a special weekly How-To hack.
15 Instructables is a website created in 2005 by Eric Wilhelm and Saul Grif>th. Instructables is
dedicated to step-by-step collaboration among members to build a variety of projects.
Users post instructions to their projects, usually accompanied by visual aids, and then in-
teract through comment sections below each Instructable step as well in topic forums.
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
people can upload precise instructions to a variety of DIY projects, as well
as to learn from and comments upon others’ projects.
Yet, intellectual property laws, such as copyright or design rights, are re-
straining the exploitation of original works of art, including their models or
designs. This is where the Open Design / Open Hardware movement comes
in, as a way to ensure that – after it has been conceived and designed for
the >rst time – a product can easily be reproduced by anyone else by simply
feeding the digital manufacturing machines with the proper instructions.
FabLabs therefore encourage artists to share their knowledge and to
ensure that their artistic productions are and remain available for the com-
munity to build upon them. Many require that artists release their works
into the ‘commons’ (i.e. the common pool of resources that can be freely
used and reused by the community) by means of speci>c licenses (such as
the Creative Commons licenses) designed to reduce the default level of
protection granted by default under the law. These licenses are meant to
maximize the dissemination of works, while promoting the further develop-
ment of cultural artefacts through the process of incremental innovation.
This can be regarded as a way to bring the values of the Open Source /
Open Content movements into the digital world, encouraging people to
collaborate towards the production of a design, which can then be repro-
duced inde>nitely – by either reproducing the design, or ‘printing’ the
product in the physical world, without any quality loss and at cost that – as
technology develops – becomes closer and closer to the marginal costs of
But knowledge also refers to the way in which speci>c tools and ma-
chines work. While everyone knows how to use a hammer or a drill, a large
majority of people still do not know how to use a 3D printer or a CNC
machine. Access to manuals and instructions is therefore a key precondition
to ensure that people can actually learn how to operate these machines, or
even >x them, if the need arises. Hence, the Open design and Open hard-
ware movement does not refer exclusively to end products, but also to the
machines and tools that are necessary for the production of these products.
Besides, if one wants to get rid of the additional layer of scarcity that
has been established as part of the capitalist system of production (i.e. de-
priving people from having access to the means of production), it is import-
ant that citizens are able to produce their own infrastructure of production.
This is the concept underlying various initiatives, such as, most notably, the
From material scarcity to artiBcial abundance
RepRap16: a 3D printer that has been designed with the objective of repro-
ducing itself. Again, this means that all plans and designs for such machines
should be made freely available to the public, in a way that does not only al-
low for people to reproduce the piece, but also to create derivative ver-
sions thereof, so as to either add new functionalities or improve currently
available ones, as well as to build upon it in order to create alternative ver-
sion of the machine which are more tuned to one or another speci>c ap-
Finally, beyond the design rights or possibly the copyright in the blue-
prints of a product, one important problem relates to the patentability of
these products and/or the manufacturing processes and techniques that are
necessary for the production thereof.
Innovation in 3D printing techniques is mainly covered by a dense mesh
of US and international patents, and some ‘open source’ developments have
already been challenged of infringing on those patents.17 As a result of mar-
ket concentration due to big players buying up formerly open source pro-
jects18 there is an increasing risk that a number of patent applications could
be >led or enforced over speci>c products or improvements,19 which may
thus preclude others from innovating in a similar direction for the whole
duration of the patent. This problem could be (partially) resolved by requir-
ing patent owners to make the knowledge for production more readily
available to all, e.g. by providing all necessary blueprints for the making of a
product in digital format. That way, even though industrial production would
be precluded by patent regulations until the patent expires, individuals could
nonetheless have the opportunity to experiment with these products, and
to – sometimes – produce them for personal use within their private
16 The RepRap (short for replicating rapid prototyper) is low cost open source rapid proto-
typing system that is capable of producing its own parts and can therefore be replicated
easily. More information available at
17 Most notably in the case of the Formlabs Kickstarter project, 3D Systems (one of the few
big players in the 3D printing market) >led a patent infringement suit on November 20,
2012 against Formlabs and Kickstarter.
18 Stratasys, also one of the few big players in the 3D printing market, bought the former
open source project Makerbot for US$ 604 million on June 19, 2013. Makerbot had aban-
doned the open source approach on September 20, 2012, after receiving US$ 10 million
in venture capital a year earlier.
19 For instance, in 2011, a patent application was >led for an ‘Additive Manufacturing System
and Method for Printing Customized Chocolate Confections’ claiming that 3D printing with
chocolate was suf>ciently inventive to receive a patent, whose scope could potentially
cover every thermoplastic material used for 3D printing. More information available on
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
But the product itself is not the only element that can be subject to
patent protection. Even if the design of a particular product has actually
been released under an open license (and is thus available for everyone to
produce and reproduce), patent rights might nonetheless subsist in the pro-
cesses or techniques employed in the making of these products. Thus, even if
all proper instruction were given on how to actually construct these
products, third parties patent rights could potentially preclude the ability for
people to undertake the necessary steps to actually implement these in-
structions, at least for commercial exploitation. Hence, it is important that –
in addition to the actual design of the product concerned – every step of
the manufacturing process be also publicly disclosed, so as to constitute pri-
or art against the future patentability thereof.
5. Conclusion
This paper started with an ambitious objective: to identify ways to hack
the law so as to turn technical or material scarcity into arti>cial abundance.
We do not pretend to have found any ideal answer to that question. Rather,
we have explored various mechanisms that could, when properly combined
together, reduce – or, eventually, eliminate – scarcity for a particular kind of
resources that we de>ned as belonging to the category of ‘end-products’.
We observed, however, that this objective can only be achieved if three
other conditions are met: (1) raw materials have to be readily available; (2)
production facilities and tools must be and remain freely accessible to all;
and (3) all knowledge concerning the making and use of products or ma-
chines has to be open and free for anyone to build upon. Indeed, to the ex-
tent that knowledge and design instructions are available to everyone,
people only need access to raw materials and production facilities or tools
in order to be able to produce (almost) everything.
20 Most European countries introduced a ‘research exemption’ into their patent legislation,
so as to allow the use of a patented invention for experimental purposes. Additional ex-
ceptions exists, such as those in respect of private and non-commercial use (see e.g. in
the UK, Section 60(5) of the Patents Act). Similarly, in Japan, Article 69(1) of the 1959 Ja-
panese Patent Law stipulates that “the effects of the patent rights shall not extend to the
working of the patent right for the purposes of experiment or research ”. Finally, in the U.S., a
series of exception for ‘experimental use’ have been established both in common law
(>rst introduced in the case of Whitemore v Cutter, 29 Fed. Cas. 1120 (1813), and later
narrowed down by the cases of Roche v Bolar, 733 F.2d 858 (Fed Cir 1984) and Duke v
Madey, 307 F.3d 1351 (Fed Cir 2002), as well as in statutory law (see e.g. section 271(e)
of 35 USC Patent Act).
From material scarcity to artiBcial abundance
Ideally, anyone needing a particular product – such as a table, a chair, or
a lamp to give a few examples – would only have to >nd or select a particu-
lar design for that object within the common pool of available designs, even-
tually adjust it to speci>c preferences or needs, and subsequently travel to a
public workshop or FabLab in order to actually build that object with the
tools and machines that have been made accessible to every community
member. Thus, assuming that a suf>cient number of FabLabs are deployed in
every city or community, one could imagine that – sooner or later –
products will only be as scarce as the raw material needed for their con-
Although we are only at the early days of these technological develop-
ments, the advent of 3D printing and other self-fabrication technologies
constitutes a paradigm shift in society that is likely to have a considerable
impact on the way people perceive and consume most of the everyday
Most importantly, we are observing today the emergence of new social
practices (mostly derived from the meme of collaboration and sharing that
established itself in the digital world) aimed at encouraging collaborative
consumption and the sharing of physical resources, which – despite being in-
herently rival in consumption – are increasingly held in common and shared
amongst the member of a particular community (Betts, 2010) according to
speci>c governance rules or social norms which prioritise access rights over
property rights as an alternative system for managing common property re-
sources (Weitzman, 1974). Building upon Benkler’s in-depth analysis of what
motivates people to engage in commons-based peer production (Benkler,
2006), we can say that – as human beings tend to collaborate whenever
there are incentives to do so (Benkler, 2011) – the growing popularity of
FabLabs and the recent development of many initiatives oriented towards
furthering the ‘common good’ is a proof that there is, nowadays, a general
interest for people to engage in collaborative practices and cooperation
(characteristics of the homo reciprocans), rather than focusing on either self-
suf>ciency – as the homo faber does (Ahrendt, 1958)– or self-interest and
competitive behaviours which are generally assumed by the homo eco-
We observe, as well, the emergence of new methods of peer-produc-
21 Homo reciprocans is the concept in some economic theories of humans as cooperative
actors who are motivated by improving their environment. This concept stands in con-
trast to the idea of homo economicus, which states the opposite theory that human be-
ings are exclusively motivated by self-interest.
Primavera De Filippi & Peter Troxler
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