The Liberator: 3D Printing and the Pirate's Dilemma

The first time I illegally downloaded anything, I was nine. I was sitting with my father in his office on the 102nd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. It was bring your child to work day, and having heard some of the hype from my elementary school classmates, I convinced my dad to download Napster to his work laptop. I asked him what his favorite song was; he answered, I searched, and pressed the download button.

A few moments later, we sat there listening to "Sugar Magnolia" by The Grateful Dead. The guitar came in, then the lyrics, and as words passed over us - "Sometimes when the night is dying, I take me out and wander round" - I never thought of what we were doing as stealing. It was instantaneous appreciation: the chance to share an experience without discs or hard copies or having to walk to a store. Though I would lose him, that file, and that building a short time later, the memory stayed with me. When I was thirteen, I bought the album "American Beauty" and played it over and over again on my Walkman as I lay in bed at night, trying in vain to recapture that lost, shared moment. It was resplendent, and no one can tell me it was wrong.

I have only a few strong political beliefs. Chief among these is my personal dedication to the dream of a free-information society. I'm a digital native - it's in my upbringing. Before I ever had independent buying power, I had been taught to pirate. Any media I have ever been able to buy, I have been able to steal just as easily. In my mind, the options are essentially interchangeable. While I do occasionally dwell upon the fact that I may be robbing an employee within the film or music industry of a needed paycheck, it seems to me that it's the business model that needs revision - not my methods. You can't fight the future, and no one wants to be on the wrong side of history.

Though sometimes I download a movie or an album from The Pirate Bay, these are the exceptions and not the rule. By and large I download books, most of them philosophy. When I finish reading the works of Ken Wilbur or Robert Anton Wilson, if I decide I like the content, I purchase the title in paperback to add to my bookshelf. Until that point, I see it as no different from checking a book out of the library. My ability to be exposed to these thinkers, to develop my own opinions and curate my thinking in the same way I curate my book collection, is a privilege. But access to such information shouldn't be.

I am no utopian, but I do believe that instead of being prohibited by the prices of tuition and textbooks, all students should be entitled to an open-source, open-access curriculum. I envision a world in which impoverished children can read The Odyssey on a computer, while listening to selections from Wagner - for free. I hope one day to live in a world where culture is not mediated by capitalist institutions. While copyright laws are extended seemingly indefinitely to keep Mickey Mouse in the hands of the Disney Corporation, I imagine a world in which we are all autodidacts - self-made and self-taught individuals, granted the access to the well of collective human experience and information that is our birthright.

Most days, my belief extends not just to our cultural heritage but to all information. In the landmark 1971 Supreme Court case The New York Times Co. vs United States, Justice Potter Stewart ruled in favor of the newspaper's decision to print the controversial Watergate papers, saying, "In the absence of governmental checks and balances, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power may be an enlightened citizenry - in an informed and critical public opinion..." Though his decision would seem to establish the free press as a public service, serving an essential function in democratic government by assuring that the electorate is informed of all the facts, his words have not stood the test of time. And though I would like to think that our betrayal by mainstream corporate media is recent - its descent into cheap entertainment and thrills - if I'm being honest, it began years ago. Take, for example, that during the first Gulf War, CNN ran footage from cameras mounted on the cones of missiles claiming it was live, despite it having been prescreened and edited for broadcast by the Pentagon. When the news service becomes a simulacrum of itself, serving the interest of powers that be over its stated goal to inform the public, drastic measures are necessary.

For the last few years, Wikileaks has been exactly that sort of drastic measure. First rising to prominence in 2010 with their video "Collateral Murder" - depicting a US helicopter killing two civilian journalists in Iraq - the open-source news organization has become a center of global attention and controversy. Despite being labeled a terrorist organization by even some high-ranking members of our government, the site's only crime has been releasing to the public the documents leaders and officials pass among themselves. When the reasons for our involvement in overseas wars that kill our fellow citizens, defame our nation's status in the international community, cause us to spend trillions of our tax dollars become murky, leaks like the so-called Iraq and Afghanistan War Diaries become necessary. When stations like CNN resign themselves to interviewing celebrities on Piers Morgan instead of reporting the news, something like Wikileaks becomes inevitable to balance the scales.

To date, Wikileaks itself has been directly responsible for no deaths, but I concede that its own internal ethics are questionable. Make no mistake, information can be dangerous. If the identities of undercover CIA operatives were leaked, they'd certainly be killed. The problem becomes, who decides what information we have access to, and who could possibly be trusted with that responsibility without ulterior motives? But information alone is not enough to kill people. You need an angry person with a gun.

And here's the gun.


In the past week, the previously fringe technology of 3D Printing has entered into the public eye and the mainstream media with the announcement of a completely self-manufactured firearm - the Liberator. The weapon itself looks more like a Nerf toy than a service revolver, its body a mix of blue and white plastic resin. For some this is a novelty straight from science fiction, not unlike the promise of a flying car. For me, it's the climax of a story I've been following for months, the saga of the Liberator's inventor, Cody Wilson - twenty-five-year-old self-described crypto-anarchist, and founder of the Austin-based company Defense Distributed.

Wilson is an enigma. Somewhat boyishly handsome, at face value he looks like he should be in a frat house or climbing the ranks of a law firm rather than being interviewed on national news. When he speaks about politics, his only clear stance is on the protection of the right to bear arms, though some of his more colorful comments - like his belief that Mitt Romney and President Obama are two faces for the ruling class of the banking elite - make me think he'd be best described as a Libertarian. Interviewed on Glenn Beck this fall, Wilson's response to a simple question - "Are you a hero or a villain?" - was as playful as it was worrisome: "That is the question, isn't it?"

According to national firearm regulations, only the lower receiver of a gun is technically a firearm. This is the central section of the weapon that holds the trigger and attaches to an ammunition magazine. It is also the only portion of a gun that bears a serial number, the only portion that can be tracked, and the only part not available for purchase over the Internet. It is exactly this part that Wilson and Defense Distributed have dedicated themselves to manufacturing with 3D printers. Until the Liberator.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, acts like a normal desktop printer would, except that it lays down plastic resins and not inks. Using a computer-aided design (or CAD) file, the printer places layer upon layer of plastic, building a three-dimensional object from the bottom up. While its inventors originally conceived of its usefulness in purely artistic and practical terms - creating sculptures, figurines, clothes hangers, plates and coffee mugs - in the hands of Cody Wilson the technology has been made to manufacture uncontrollable munitions. The Liberator, the most advanced printed gun to date, has only two metal components: a firing pin made from a scrap nail, and a metal bar inserted into the receiver to comply with gun legislation necessitating that all sold firearms must set off a metal detector. Defense Distributed has also moved into making fifty round magazines - exactly the sort that would be targeted by new gun control legislation.

In one of his Youtube videos, Wilson holds a modified AR-15 - the same gun used in the Sandy Hook shooting - with a transparent plastic receiver, and fires off a few rounds before turning to the camera to ask, "How's that national conversation going?" Though he has recently received a firearms manufacturing license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms allowing him to sell his products, Wilson is more interested in making his CAD file blueprints available for free online through his website, so that fellow 3D printing enthusiasts can follow his example and make their own weapons. Now there is no difference between downloading an album and burning a CD and downloading a CAD file and printing a gun. On top of which, other pirates using Wilson's blueprints are not required to make their home-printed guns identifiable by a metal detector.

Critics claim Cody Wilson is in it for the attention. Well, he's got mine.

I believe in gun control. I believe that the Second Amendment to the Constitution has been misinterpreted, extending the right for states to create armed defensive militias to the personal right to own semi-automatic weapons. I do not understand why a civilian could require access to armor-piercing bullets and weapons that fire up to 800 rounds a minute for hunting even the largest moose. I believe that background checks on firearms sales - keeping potentially deadly weapons out of the hands of the mentally unstable, and those with criminal records - is plain common sense. But how do you even begin to implement gun control in an era of 3D printing? And how can I stand by my belief in the freedom of information, when extending my own logic means there is nothing wrong with downloading a gun?

There is a snake in my Eden, and it's not even the second day.

The same day that Defense Distributed announced the Liberator, office-supply giant Staples announced it would start carrying 3D printers. Since the release of the Liberator's CAD files to the Internet, the blueprints have been downloaded over 100,000 times. The government has attempted to step in: just this Thursday, the Department of Defense took down the Liberator CAD files from the website, but within a matter of hours the plans were back online with web hosting from New Zealand. Today, The Pirate Bay, the same BitTorrent search engine where I download books and films, has come out in support of providing the public with a place to download the CAD file. Copies of the 2mb file already have over 5000 seeders. As the cyber-activist group Anonymous likes to say, "We are legion." Cody Wilson is correct about one thing: it is too late to be having "the same gun control conversation we had in 1994." Ultimately, this isn't even a conversation about gun control.


In my mind, completely open access to information would allow the children of the developing world to learn programming along with reading and writing. If the fate of 3D printing is any barometer, how soon does this curriculum turn violent in the wrong hands? The current line we have drawn on this issue is flawed - the same sort of protectorate policies that cripple game play on Sim City V and keep HIV retro-viral medication prohibitively expensive due to patents, not production costs. We need to level the playing field, and to do that we need to open the door and let everyone into the library. The question becomes how far to open that door, and where to draw the line on what is necessary and what is dangerous information. In my mind, the only acceptable boundary is the protection of human life.