Back in October 2012, former Microsoft CTO and alleged patent troll Nathan Myhrvold and his group, Intellectual Ventures released a patent for a Digital Rights Management system for CAD models. If you buy music or videos online, often there are little tidbits of code that limit your ability to share it freely. That's DRM, and it's been heavily criticized by all, mostly because it doesn't work. Once a file is cracked, it can roam freely in the wilds of the Internet. Same rules apply to CAD files. It's probably harder than most music or video formats to accomplish, but it can be done. But why treat everyone like a criminal? Is there a way to combine the benefits of Open Engineering with DRM?
Using DRM for Tracing Usage
One interesting concept that came to mind is combining hyperlinking and CAD. As CAD files begin to leave individual computers and private networks and enter the cloud, they take on attributes that resemble webpages. For example, everytime someone cites a GrabCAD blogpost, we often get a citation. Google uses this concept to rank webpages when you search for something. The links at the top usually are the ones that have the highest number of webpages hyperlinking to it. Larry Page and Sergey Brin built their Empire on the basis of this simple idea - linking is the same as liking. And if you're looking for anything, you want to look at the most 'liked' item.
Your CAD model that you're making - that's like a website. And you're probably using other people's parts. Like this very blog, it is made up of a number of different people's work - videos, pictures, quotes - joined together by commentary. The crucial difference between your CAD model and this blog is that citations are not linked together. There is no connective tissue between you and the Engineers that made the parts. Even though your model is an impressive, fusion-power motorbike that nobody thought of making, it's made of other people's work. Being the good, wholesome Engineer that you are, you provide hyperlinks to GrabCAD profiles and pages - but don't you wish that was automatic?
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
This is the advantage of DRM. According to Myhrvold's patent, every time a CAD file is sent to a 3D Printer, the DRM code sends a message to a server to check and see if it can be printed. If so, all's good. If not, get the rights for it, bud. Rather, buy the rights is the idea. We're not a fan of that. But we do want to see Engineers and Designers give credit where credit is due. And no doubt you want to see your work being put to use in some new and interesting idea. It's the glue of any productive community and active collaboration.
It seems to me that DRM isn't the problem. It needs to be re-understood as a way to provide Engineers and Designers with a legit way to easy cite credit where credit is due (no need to hyperlink profiles in the comments section) as well as a way for you to see how your files are being used. If they aren't being use properly, then it's up to you to talk to them. It's better to treat every stranger as a friend until they do wrong, rather than every stranger as an enemy until they do right.
The tough part is getting it to work. CAD files aren't like words and numbers. They are notoriously difficult to index and search. You can't search for a type of wheel based on specs that you need, unless the file is heavily tagged or categorized. This is a rare thing. Although Fujitsu has developed some interesting ideas around allowing you search for items similar in shape and size to what you have already. However, as a gatekeeper, GrabCAD is in a better position to log and catalog files as they are uploaded, allowing for GrabCADrs to automatically hyperlink files and cite as they build their own creations. But the Internet is a big place - what of Thingiverse, Turbosquid and the like? Or all the software giants that control the architecture of your files? It'd require a great deal of cooperation - but it could be done (otherwise, we could have this problem). And imagine what a better place it would be to Engineer and Design openly.