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This story appears in my collection Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present, 2007

Nature Magazine

Mini-comic by Martin Cendreda, published by Secret Headquarters

Podcast (Escape Pod)

Animation by Josh Swinehart

French fan-translation (Rigas Arvanitis)

Spanish fan-translation (Ariel Maidana)

Italian fan-translation (Emanuele Vulcano)

Polish fan translation (Luke Kowalski)

Fan audio adaptation (Jason Mayoff, professional voice artist)

Greg Elmensdorp’s 3D illustration for the story

Brazilian Portuguese fan-translation (Eduardo Mercer)

Filipino fan-translation by Paul Pajo

European Portuguese fan-translation, by Luis Filipe Silva

Hiligaynon fan-translation, by Lorna Belviz-Pajo

Korean fan-translation (Sejin Choi)

Romanian fan-translation, by Alex Brie

Japanese fan-translation, by Hikaru “Anna” Otsuka.

Chinese fan-translation by Renjie Yao

Hungarian fan-translation by Judit Hegedus

Polish fan-translation by Krzysztof Mroczko, in Creatio Fantastica XXVII

German fan-translation by Nemo Folkitz

Russian fan-translation by Ruslan Bayastanov

Nature have generously granted me permission to reproduce this short-short story in full — click below to see the whole thing.


Copy this story.

(originally published in Nature Magazine, January 2006)

Cory Doctorow

The coppers smashed my father’s printer when I was eight. I remember the hot, cling-film-in-a-microwave smell of it, and Da’s look of ferocious concentration as he filled it with fresh goop, and the warm, fresh-baked feel of the objects that came out of it.

The coppers came through the door with truncheons swinging, one of them reciting the terms of the warrant through a bullhorn. One of Da’s customers had shopped him. The ipolice paid in high-grade pharmaceuticals — performance enhancers, memory supplements, metabolic boosters. The kind of things that cost a fortune over the counter; the kind of things you could print at home, if you didn’t mind the risk of having your kitchen filled with a sudden crush of big, beefy bodies, hard truncheons whistling through the air, smashing anyone and anything that got in the way.

They destroyed grandma’s trunk, the one she’d brought from the old country. They smashed our little refrigerator and the purifier unit over the window. My tweetybird escaped death by hiding in a corner of his cage as a big, booted foot crushed most of it into a sad tangle of printer-wire.

Da. What they did to him. When he was done, he looked like he’d been brawling with an entire rugby side. They brought him out the door and let the newsies get a good look at him as they tossed him in the car. All the while a spokesman told the world that my Da’s organized-crime bootlegging operation had been responsible for at least 20 million in contraband, and that my Da, the desperate villain, had resisted arrest.

I saw it all from my phone, in the remains of the sitting room, watching it on the screen and wondering how, just how anyone could look at our little flat and our terrible, manky estate and mistake it for the home of an organized crime kingpin. They took the printer away, of course, and displayed it like a trophy for the newsies. Its little shrine in the kitchenette seemed horribly empty. When I roused myself and picked up the flat and rescued my poor peeping tweetybird, I put a blender there. It was made out of printed parts, so it would only last a month before I’d need to print new bearings and other moving parts. Back then, I could take apart and reassemble anything that could be printed.

By the time I turned 18, they were ready to let Da out of prison. I’d visited him three times — on my tenth birthday, on his fiftieth, and when Ma died. It had been two years since I’d last seen him and he was in bad shape. A prison fight had left him with a limp, and he looked over his shoulder so often it was like he had a tic. I was embarrassed when the minicab dropped us off in front of the estate, and tried to keep my distance from this ruined, limping skeleton as we went inside and up the stairs.

“Lanie,” he said, as he sat me down. “You’re a smart girl, I know that. You wouldn’t know where your old Da could get a printer and some goop?”

I squeezed my hands into fists so tight my fingernails cut into my palms. I closed my eyes. “You’ve been in prison for ten years, Da. Ten. Years. You’re going to risk another ten years to print out more blenders and pharma, more laptops and designer hats?”

He grinned. “I’m not stupid, Lanie. I’ve learned my lesson. There’s no hat or laptop that’s worth going to jail for. I’m not going to print none of that rubbish, never again.” He had a cup of tea, and he drank it now like it was whisky, a sip and then a long, satisfied exhalation. He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair.

“Come here, Lanie, let me whisper in your ear. Let me tell you the thing that I decided while I spent ten years in lockup. Come here and listen to your stupid Da.”

I felt a guilty pang about ticking him off. He was off his rocker, that much was clear. God knew what he went through in prison. “What, Da?” I said, leaning in close.

“Lanie, I’m going to print more printers. Lots more printers. One for everyone. That’s worth going to jail for. That’s worth anything.”

Cory Doctorow has spent the past four years at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), fighting at the United Nations and in tech-standards bodies to balance the rights of copyright and patent holders with the public interest. His novels can be had free online at www.craphound.com.

62 Responses to “Printcrime”

  1. Casimir

    I loved it! I truly believe that there is a fine art in producing a good short story. This one left me thinking and wanting more.

  2. Frank

    If printing more printers was possible, wouldn’t it have been the first thing anyone tried to do with one?

  3. Owen

    Really really great. It’s amazing how science fiction can give you a little boost of optimism when the present day is looking bleak.

  4. Dave Goodman

    Awesome. Fantastic piece of flash fiction Cory, with an awesome ending. And I must say for a Canuck you got the Brit tones down pat. Though you do live here I suppose.

  5. LazyBoy

    Wow. Brightened up my day and did it so quick that I didn’t feel guilty reading it at work. Good day.

  6. Josh

    Good point Frank. The problem with printing printers lies in that like the blender they would need rebuilt or reprinted in a month or so.
    IF logic stays the same. Unless printers have advanced greatly in the last 10 yrs Da was in Jail.

    Great story! Makes me think of all the folding projects out there for Paper PSPs and iPods etc.

  7. Devin

    Not necessarily, Josh. The problem seemed to lie in the moving parts of the blender. If the printer’s got limited moving parts, then those are the only things that’d need replacing. So you might need to re-print the gimbals your laser assembly and goop squirter sit on, but not the whole thing.

    Of course, the fact that the printers can produce pharmaceuticals implies that they’re doing some pretty significant chemical or molecular manipulation, raising the question of why they can’t produce materials hard enough to last in a blender. Steel is a whole lot simpler to produce than most drugs, and synthetic corundum or diamond shouldn’t be out of the question.

  8. Steve

    Since this is a Cory Doctorow story, I’d assume the reason people with printers hadn’t been using them to make more printers is the same reason the MPAA wasn’t happy about the VCR: if you’re the only one who can produce something, you can sell it. If you’ve got the only printer on your block, you can use it as your livelihood. If you make one for everybody, you’ve gotta find another job.

    I’m wondering about the goop: if printers can’t produce it, it really doesn’t matter how many there are.

  9. icecow

    In the day of loafty cheap parts printers I’d think local hardware stores would stock an assortment of standard sized bearings, hinges, ect. much similar to the standardized machine screws/ect. that we take for granted.

    That way ya could crack open that pesty aging, under-used breadmaker like a nut and take its small engine; pick up a #12 sealed bearing from the corner munchies, gas, and geek market; and print out the rest of the blender from plans designed around the motor and bearings.

  10. foregone conclusions

    If you have a printer that can produce printers, the first I’d do would be to produce a spare printer. :)

  11. Saint Paul Saint

    The question of printing more printers is not a technological one,
    but one of economics. Fewer printers create black markets for goods like “laptops” and “pharma”, but if eveyone has that ability then people are free to print what they need, like, say a “birdcage”.
    Power to the people.

  12. Michael Bernstein

    I like it too. It’s bitchun.

    That said, is it covered by the CC license (Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial 1.0) at the bottom of this page?

  13. pete

    Big props to Cory for getting a ‘Nature’ publication!

    I work in an Australian University that – because of a number of substantial ‘reforms’ currently being pushed on the higher education sector by the Howard Government – is becoming increasingly obsessed with journal ‘impact factors’ as a measure of (a). the overall quality of the university’s research output; and (b). the quality of individual academics and research groups within the university. Quite simply, the more publications one has in high ranking journals, the brighter one’s future in academia. Very little else matters.

    For these reasons, getting something published in Nature – a journal that consistently ranks in the top 10, and had a 2004 impact factor of 32.182 – would be a wet-dream come true for most of the people I work with!

    So once again, well done Cory!

    p.s., There is an interesting article about impact factors in the Chronicle of Higher Education here.

    Cc. BoingBoing.

  14. Anonymous

    I’d be interested to know how a printer made from goop can manipulate said goop into its final form without its internal parts reliquifying.

    Perhaps the goop has a one-way reaction chain as part of its makeup? Or exposure to air hardens it permanently? Then there’s the whole question of whether the final products are biodegradeable or recyclable, and how durable they can be.

    And of course, the source and legal use of the goop may well be heavily government-controlled and -regulated.

    Here’s a twist – what if he produced printers which, once a week without fail, cloned themselves?

    Sure, individual units could be hacked to disable this feature. Goop could be withheld (making the printer useless, but there ya go). But as a default behaviour, they’d replicate geometrically. Average folks would start by giving them to their family, then their friends and neighbours, then anyone, then having them pile up and having to be recycled or thrown away (where they might be found by still others). Eventually, people would stop feeding the breeding models and look for non-breeding printers, but by then everyone would have a printer of some kind and the damage would have been done.

    As a side-effect, no-one would ever worry about having a broken printer, as they would either have a couple of spares lying around, or could find someone in their neighbourhood to grab one off. If the material of broken printers was able to be turned back into goop, that would be even better, as broken and excess printers wouldn’t pile up all over the planet.

    Hmm… for a giggle, substitute “polymerisable hydrocarbons, such as those found in petroleum products” for “goop”. Run your printer off the same stuff you put in your gas tank. Let’s see the governments of the world try and restrict access to THAT source of carbon chains. Grab oxygen and nitrogen from the air and print out plastics, kerosene, carbon fibre and nanotubes, buckyballs, water, TNT, diamonds, basic fertiliser, ammonia and cleaning compounds, hydrogen gas, CO2, carbonic acid, and most other simple organic compounds. Basically, anything without metals or exotic elements would be fair game.

    I wonder if a plastic/nanotube/diamond computer would be possible? Need more computing power? Just print it. More pixels, bit storage, peripherals? Say the word. Sure, they wouldn’t be as cheap-in-bulk, powerful or efficient as products that big industry could produce, but they’d be free, instantly accessible, and EVERYWHERE.

    Not to mention what could be done if a printer could chew up sand and rock to extract the silicon.

  15. DarrellH

    Cory, what a wonderful piece of work! I’ve read many book-length works without as much to say as this piece had. Kudos!

  16. Chaps

    “Steel is a whole lot simpler to produce than most drugs”… that depends on the tools that you have available. and the materials, materials are important.

  17. plaasjaapie

    I LOVE this story! For those of you who like the concept be aware that there is an open source technology project are designing and building the first of these kinds of printer right now in real life. The project was conceived and is being directed by Professor Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath in the UK.

    You can visit the project’s web site at…


    Great job, Cory! Keep up the good work!

  18. Chris Phoenix

    Yes, diamond should be very doable… if you are working at the molecular level. Scanning probe microscopes have been used to move individual silicon atoms in a silicon crystal–in 1994!

    I don’t think the same has been done for diamond yet, but Freitas has suggested a research approach that should provide a proof of concept with today’s tools.

    More papers on molecular mechanosynthesis listed at:

    If you can build a 100-nanometer scanning probe microscope, basic scaling laws suggest that it should be able to build its own mass of product, a few atoms at a time, in about 100 seconds.
    http://crnano.org/essays05.htm#2,Feb (Yes, the comma-Feb is part of the URL, sorry)

    Once tiny scanning probes are developed, huge numbers of them could be combined in efficient arrays to make a tabletop nano-based printer, or nanofactory. The following paper is old, and even more efficient designs have been proposed, but it’s still got a lot of useful information.

    The previous two links were written by me. I co-founded the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology to explore nano-based “printer” type technology. The CRN web site contains lots of information on the technical aspects and also the societal implications (which may be far more scary than policemen with truncheons).
    http://crnano.org/papers.htm for our papers
    Lots of science essays at the “basic scaling laws” link above

    Oh, and Cory– great story! Whether it’s RepRap or nanofactory, personal ownership of printers/factories is a question we’ll have to confront… soon. (How soon? Probably before 2020: http://crnano.org/timeline.htm )


  19. Jan-Willem Bats

    Nice one, Cory.

    I’ve been thinking about the economic implications of nanofactories myself.

    Think of the pure informational products that you can now already get for free (which doesn’t mean legal): music, movies, book, software.

    Think of what you might be getting for free (and once again, not necessarily legal) in the future if you’ve got yourself a nanofac…

    Well… basically everything. All it takes is a feed of raw atoms, and a product design freely available on the Internet.

    What will this do to the economy?

    I’d say it will lead to quite a transformation.

    Let’s hope the CRNano Taskforce will come up with some interesting ideas on this.

  20. Adam Keen

    You can sew your own clothes, prepare your own food, drink OpenCola, use Linux, build your own computer, watch independant films, and read some Cory Doctorow stories for free. To name a few.

    And yet there’s still clothes companies, restaurants, Coke and Pepsi, Microsoft, Dell, movie production companies, and Cory is still selling books.

    Would these printers really change everything so much?

  21. Bob Munck

    “Printers” sound much like “The Seed,” Neal Stephensen’s McGuffin in Diamond Age. Or maybe his “matter compilers” with goop substituting for Feeds. He made a pretty good attempt to describe a society with fully-realized nanotechnology, but it was never clear to me how the economic system hung together (to the extent that it did). Food, clothing, and shelter seemed to be free, and they could manufacture living space. Why did they have muggers?

  22. Nato Welch

    “To make laws that man cannot, and will not obey, serves to bring all law into contempt.”
    –[[http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Cady_Stanton |Elizabeth Cady Stanton]]

  23. Harmless

    The means of production! *falls over chuckling* You really got that down conscisely, we need it, too many of your predecessors were not nearly so succinct, and this is all anyone has time for anymore :S

    Why are so many other comments bubbling about hypothetical technology? Confusing the medium for the message?

  24. Chris

    Great story. Love the shortness of it – stuff with an impact is best delivered in “shotglass” doses.

    The ending felt like it was handed to us, though:

    “Lanie, I’m going to print more printers. Lots more printers. One for everyone. That’s worth going to jail for. That’s worth anything.”

    I think the last two sentences mute the impact. Let us think about why he would do such a thing, you know?

    Wonderful job, though.

  25. hnu

    Great short-short, Cory! And, for a short-short, it’s amazing how loooooong a tail of comments it has produced :))

  26. JM

    This is a great little piece. I am using it as the basis for the first reading response assignment in my freshman comp class.

  27. Joel Falconer

    I couldn’t resist helping make this comments thread longer than the original story :) Fantastic read, like all the other stories in Overclocked! Very poignant, especially the ending. I love this kind of relevant allegory, too.

  28. Linker

    This has been made into a PG ebook, but the license details are missing, and it is less than clear from this page what they are… Is this text under CC by-nd-nc/1.0, or a specific permission for Cory to publish it here, or what? In any case, a quick email to errata@gutenberg.net clarifying the license status of this work would be nice.

    The gutenberg link is: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19000

  29. Andrew Elliot

    These prototype printers exist, but their eventual future will lie in a bucket of nanobots that will assemble the final product from the raw materials you dump in it. Perhaps these printers once refined can produce the nanobots that will over several steps produce the final nanobots. Beware the gray goo! What a nightmare cornucopia can be!

  30. David McKendrick

    Funnily enough, I found one of these Printcrime booklets (small little ‘folded up’ in booklet or ‘zine’ form) on the TTC in Toronto a few months back.

    I still have the copy lying around in my apartment somewhere, it was quite a good read.

  31. phr

    Cool story, I just came across it. Reminds me of an old Damon Knight novel called “A For Anything” so I guess there’s sort of an archetype underlying both.

  32. neurolux

    Frank said:
    If printing more printers was possible, wouldn’t it have been the first thing anyone tried to do with one?

    My first wish would be a wish for more wishes.

  33. Teleny Parrish

    Something I always disliked about most “cyber-thrillers” — the McGuffin file (software, chip, hardware) is always a non-reproducible Quest Object, that is, the hero can’t just copy it onto some kind of server (good idea), spam USENET with it (better idea), or simply keep the specs and toss the offending atoms (and then get viral with the schematic).

    At last someone’s gotten wise. Great story, Cory.

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