Who would have thought that Kevin Spacey would understand the world of digital distribution better than the media companies?

At a TV industry gathering in Edinburgh, Scotland, Spacey laid out some ironclad wisdom about the state of digital content and the relationship its creators should have with it. Many of these insights were drawn from his involvement with House of Cards, which premiered on Netflix.

“Through this new form of distribution, we have demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn: Give the people what they want in the form they want it in at a reasonable price — and they’ll more likely pay for it than steal,” he said.

To anyone paying attention to the state of digital rights management (DRM) and content, Spacey’s comments are probably pretty obvious. Rather than bottle up content and aggressively control the means by which it’s distributed, Spacey says that content holders should offer content in whatever ways people want it.

Which leads me to 3D printing. Right now, designers, copyright holders, and 3D printing companies are navigating the (very) early days of 3D printing. And while no one’s quite sure what the eventual 3D printing economy will look like, one thing is certain: Piracy of physical objects via design files will certainly be a part of this future (as The Pirate Bay has already hinted).

What isn’t yet certain is how intellectual property holders will respond to it.

Michael Weinberg, a staff attorney with Public Knowledge, says that if 3D printing companies and IP holders of physical objects learn anything from how the music and movie industries have handled some of the larger intellectual property questions, let it be this: Once you go digital, the bits will flow. And there’s no turning back.

“When something is digitized, it can spread beyond your control. There’s no DRM that exists that can prevent that,” Weinberg told VentureBeat.

This is something that other industries have been slow to realize. Rather than approach digital content from the vantage of the people using it, content holders implemented harsh (and often ineffective) DRM, sued suspected pirates, and generally treated people more like criminals than customers.

Obviously, very little of that’s worked out well.

Rather than focus on ways to control the spread of 3D design files via DRM, Weinberg recommends that companies respond to the piracy question by offering users experiences and services, not intimidation.

This, again, is an idea that media companies were painfully slow to realize. The most successful content distribution companies right now — iTunes and Spotify for music, Amazon for e-books, and Netflix for movies — are the ones that put service and experience first, not DRM.  (Apple and Amazon have also done an unparalleled job of integrating service, shopping, and devices in one end-to-end experience, which also explains its success).

Similar praise has been heaped on Steam, the video game digital distribution network created by Valve. While digital rights management is a part of what Valve offers with Steam, most users of the service don’t mind it because the overall experience of using Steam is such a good one.

Valve president Gabe Newell explained Steam’s success well back in 2011: “One thing that we have learned is that piracy is not a pricing issue. It’s a service issue. The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting anti-piracy technology to work. It’s by giving those people a service that’s better than what they’re receiving from the pirates.”

MakerBot, Shapeways, 3D Systems, et al., take note.

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