There have always been cheap knock-offs. Even your grandparents could buy imitation Rolex watches, or smell-alikes of expensive perfumes, or etc. for substantially less than the originals. This was never a serious problem, as the cheap knock-offs were always that; cheap. Cheaply made, cheaply sold, and generally fragile or otherwise not-as-good as the originals. This pattern has been around for an awfully long time.
Fundamentally, that sort of cheap knock-off is no different than modern “piracy”. The pirate looks at a desired, expensive good, and then recreates it cheaper, and sell their copy to consumers at a lower price than the original manufacturer can manage. The only difference we’ve got over the older “Hey Mac, wanna buy a watch?” approach is that it’s possible for software folks to cheaply make an exact duplicate of an existing product, rather than having to manufacture our own version of a physical object using the original as a guide.
But it’s not always going to be like that.
With 3D printing and other fabrication processes becoming commoditised, it’s only a matter of time before the common Joe on the street will be able to manufacture items to the same standards as big companies. Imagine a combination 3D scanner and 3D printer — it’s not a far-fetched idea; we already have primitive versions of both types of device. Give us twenty years, and they’ll both have gotten much more sophisticated, and could well have been merged into a single object. Let’s call this object a “duplicator”, and assume that most families will have one about the size of a toaster. Need an extra copy of the house key to give to a visiting family member? Drop yours into the duplicator, and it’ll make another key for you. Run out of paper towels? Easy to make more, from the single spare you keep around for exactly that situation.
Of course, most businesses would be using these devices to avoid needing to keep huge warehouses full of goods. All they need is one copy of anything they want to be able to sell, and a duplicator large enough to hold it. It’s like on-demand book printing, but for sofas and refrigerators. Restaurants would only need one chef; each night he’d prepare one instance of each dish on the menu, and everyone who ordered that meal that night would get a duplicate.
Thought experiment time. What do you suppose will happen to the fabulously prestigious company ChairCorp when random Joe on the street can furnish his apartment by borrowing one of his friend’s ChairCorp chairs and duplicating it? ChairCorp’s chief source of wealth, their real product is their intangible chair designs, and the intangible workmanship they put into their chairs. But their income comes from selling physical chairs, and suddenly those physical chairs have become extremely cheap. How can they continue to pay their designers?
I imagine that the first thing they’ll do is to try to lobby for regulation of these duplicators. That they should be able to put some sort of “watermark” into their chairs which duplicators will be required to recognise, and then refuse to perform the copy. Of course, every time they release a new chair design, there will be people who make a small profit in removing that watermark, so people can purchase the latest exciting new ChairCorp chair, remove the watermark, and then duplicate it as often as they like. And there’ll be a vocal group of protesters complaining that they really ought to be allowed to legally duplicate these expensive chairs for backup purposes, in case the original is scratched or broken or something.
It’ll probably take a few years, but ChairCorp will eventually realise that they’re losing this battle, and so they’ll move to the next tactic; legal wrangling. Here, they’ll ship each of their chairs with a legal agreement which requires the purchaser to agree that they will not attempt to remove the anti-duplicating watermark. Now when someone removes the watermark, they’re violating a contract, whereas previously they were merely defacing an object that they owned, and it’s much easier to prosecute someone for violating a contract than for defacing their own posessions.
Now, some will argue that this kind of ship-wrap arrangement isn’t a valid contract, but that won’t be ChairCorp’s biggest problem. The problem is that even though they now have a more concrete reason to start legal proceedings against the duplicators, it won’t be easy at all for ChairCorp to figure out precisely who altered their chairs to allow them to be duplicated without sending out enforcers to examine all their customers’ chairs, looking for unauthorised duplicates. And maybe they’ll do that for their big corporate customers who each bought thousands of chairs, but it’s just not worth the investment of money to investigate all their civilian customers who only bought one or two chairs, each. Maybe they’ll make a few token investigations of somebody’s grandparents, just to make an example of them.. but they’ll soon give up on this as being bad publicity.
Eventually, ChairCorp will realise that they’re fighting a losing battle; they simply can’t stop people from duplicating the chairs. So given that people are going to be successful in duplicating the chairs, how can they stop the duplicated chairs from being used, so people will still need to buy original chairs? Well, one thought is that they might attach their chairs to whatever ubiquitous wireless network is around at the time, and “phone home” to find out whether they’re a legitimate chair, or a duplicated chair. If they determine that they’re duplicated, or if they’re unable to reach the ChairCorp Activation Server (say, because they’ve been installed inside a Faraday cage, or are just in a spot with poor reception, or perhaps ChairCorp has decided to stop supporting that model of chair), then they’ll fall apart when sat upon. Of course, those who want to make duplicate chairs will now just remove that “phone home” feature, in addition to the anti-duplication watermark and continue as normal. And the legitimate customers will complain about how their chairs fall apart every time they suffer a network dropout.
Where does it go from there? I don’t know. I don’t know how ChairCorp continues to make a profit when their value to the world is in their ideas, but they sell a physical, easily-duplicated object. Maybe they don’t; maybe they go out of business, and nobody can design chairs for a living ever again. Or maybe they figure out some way to make it work; some sort of “design licensing scheme” that doesn’t rely on people purchasing original chairs to generate income.
Make no mistake; there are interesting times ahead. What we’re going through right now with computer software is going to go very, very big, and almost certainly within our lifetimes.