Free Software Foundation Certifies 3D Printer — And Why That Matters

from the I'm-sorry,-Dave,-I'm-afraid-I-can't-do-that dept

Last week Mike wrote about a new patent from Intellectual Ventures that seeks to assert ownership of the idea of DRM for 3D printing. The article in Technology Review that Techdirt linked to explains how things would work:

“You load a file into your printer, then your printer checks to make sure it has the rights to make the object, to make it out of what material, how many times, and so on,” says Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at the nonprofit Public Knowledge, who reviewed the patent at the request of Technology Review. “It’s a very broad patent.”

That’s a pretty obvious approach, which any halfway competent engineer would come up with, so it’s hard to see how it was ever granted a patent. But leaving aside this familiar problem with the patent system, there’s an important issue skated over in the above explanation. It assumes that the printer has the power to disobey you — that is, to refuse to print out an object that you want, because of the DRM in the file describing it, or because it doesn’t have DRM at all. This parallels the situation for computers, where DRM is based on the assumption that your computer is not fully under your control, and has the ability to ignore your commands. That’s one of the reasons why free software is so important: it is predicated on the idea that the user is always in control.

Against the background of the new 3D-printing patent, this announcement from the Free Software Foundation (FSF) that it has recently certified a 3D printer made by Aleph Objects as “respecting the user’s freedom”, takes on a particular significance:

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) today awarded its first Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification to the LulzBot AO-100 3D Printer sold by Aleph Objects, Inc. The RYF certification mark means that the product meets the FSF’s standards in regard to users’ freedom, control over the product, and privacy.

Here are the FSF’s criteria for making the award:

The desire to own a computer or device and have full control over it, to know that you are not being spied on or tracked, to run any software you wish without asking permission, and to share with friends without worrying about Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) — these are the desires of millions of people who care about the future of technology and our society. Unfortunately, hardware manufacturers have until now relied on close cooperation with proprietary software companies that demanded control over their users. As citizens and their customers, we need to promote our desires for a new class of hardware — hardware that anyone can support because it respects your freedom.

That is, in making the award, the FSF has established that the LulzBot remains fully under the user’s control.

Until now, that hasn’t been an issue — there’s no practical way to stop someone from simply downloading a file and then printing it out on a compatible 3D printer. But the patent from Intellectual Ventures is the first step towards a time when users of 3D printers will be confronted with issues of control in exactly the same way that computer users are today.

Once 3D printing becomes more widespread, we can certainly expect pressure from manufacturers to bring in laws against unauthorized copying of physical objects and circumvention of 3D DRM schemes, just as the copyright industries have pushed for ever-harsher laws against file sharing. They may even try to get open hardware systems like the LulzBot made illegal on the grounds that the user is fully in control – just as media companies would doubtless love to make computers running free software illegal. That’s a battle they lost, largely because free software existed long before digital media files were sold to consumers. We may not be so lucky next time.

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Comments on “Free Software Foundation Certifies 3D Printer — And Why That Matters”

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Anonymous Coward says:

It’s amusing to read all of this, but I think 3D printing’s real Achilles heel will be liability in the US, let me explain:

One of the things of 3D printing is the ability to produce replacement parts, especially those fiddly little plastic things that seem to be everywhere. Some of those fiddly pieces of plastic are actually critical to the safety of a design, such as a breakaway connector in a loop chain on blinds (keeps kids from choking on them). Perhaps something as simple as a seat belt kit to allow children to sit with the shoulder belt pulled down, or perhaps a pin that keeps a safety fence (for blocking stairs in a house) from opening.

At some point, some bright bulb will start to produce, using 3D printing, these critical components, and start selling them. They may not work as intended, and may lead to accidents or unintended harm to equipment or end users. There will be much in the liability field here.

If the printer company didn’t follow guidelines, or made a device that does not properly check drm, or labeling requirements, or safety requirements, they may face some liability.

Further, the person who produced the 3D instructions to build the part in question may also run the risk, knowing that people could reproduce the part without the proper materials or processing.

There is a lot here that is not clear legally, and the rush to get to the finish line is very likely to leave some people with massive legal nightmares to deal with.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think it may end up like this; if you don’t print an official part using a printer that is rated as being compatible you can’t hold any one libel for use of that part. I think is is in part why some fears about 3D printing and “piracy” are not going to turn out as bad as some people might imagine. If you don’t hold a valid licence for a product you shouldn’t be able to sue any one if it doesn’t work correctly or if it isn’t safe, which is a hell of an intensive for buying a licence.

Of course “compatible” is an issue here since while it wouldn’t stop you using printers that come, say, with out DRM built in, once the DRM lock is broken it would make 3D printers that the industry likes more desirable.

It is going to be interesting to see if the makers of 3D printing end up being held libel if a part one of their printers prints is defective but I doubt it’s going to be a killer issue. Home manufacture already exist and these problems already exist on a home scale. People don’t commonly sue the tools they used to build something if what they built ended up hurting them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

That doesn’t make sense. The hammer in and of itself does not produce anything. A 3D printer and a file produces a finished product with no user intervention (except to click “go”). The hammer is just an object that produces nothing without the user controlling it’s every move and action.

it would be like 3d printing of parts where you have to use a pen to draw each layer. The pen wouldn’t be an issue!

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The hammer is just an object that produces nothing without the user controlling it’s every move and action.

That’s all a 3D printer or the computer controlling it does.

Just because the instructions are much more complicated changes nothing. All a computer can do is follow instructions put into it by a user (whether that user has to call tech support for help plugging in their iPhone or some uber-geek who programs the Linux kernel).

Your fear mongering is overblown and the product of the lawyer culture that infects the country.

The maker of the original product is not liable if an end user replaces some part with their own printed one. The maker of the 3D printer is not liable for a user deciding to replace some part in another product with something from the printer.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

OK, replace “3D printer” with “CNC machine”, or “welding robot” or “injection molder”. The majority of the items that we use today have been manufactured by automated machinery with little to no human contact. Hell, everything that’s been made out of plastic is done with injection molders, and most metal objects are either molded, stamped or made on a CNC machine which are all functionally similar to a 3D printer–operator fills it with raw materials, presses a button to start it, walks away. None of the manufacturers of these machines would be held responsible for failures in the design of or materials used in the items that their machines make–and they definitely wouldn’t be held responsible for operator error. Why should we hold the 3D printer manufacturers responsible for these things?

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I haven’t seen anyone here arguing that “we should” hold 3D printer manufacturers responsible, only that it is possible that “we will”. In that I think it’s a worthwhile point as I mentioned above, rational doesn’t always enter into it (see all the crazy product disclaimers, such as trimming hedges w/ a lawnmower).

Thinking and discussing this now may help us avoid this w/ 3D printing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Thank you Mike for noticing the difference.

Keroberos: “replace “3D printer” with “CNC machine”, or “welding robot” or “injection molder”” Yes, you could do that, and almost all of those are run by companies who produce products in the market place and face liability issues when they fail. If the software in the CNC machine meant that parts were poorly made, or the welding robots only did 50% of the job required because of defective software, do you not think that the companies that make and sell them wouldn’t be somewhat liable?

What happens when the 3D printing world sets a spec that requires certain materials to make certain parts, enforced by a “build chip” in the printers? If someone chooses to bypass it (hacking it, I guess) and using substandard raw materials, who is liable? What happens is a company sells a 3D printer that ignores these safety features?

You see, we don’t know where it’s going, but I do find it all scary. People without skills making key components that others could be hurt or lose their lives over is no laughing matter. There is just too much in play here, too many ways for this to go to shit. Vicarious liability and general liability suggests that the manufactures, especially those who make “wide open” products that intentionally avoid any restriction or safety protocols may be at risk.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

“People without skills making key components that others could be hurt or lose their lives over is no laughing matter.”

So you think we need to license every tool?

Should anyone be able to rotate the tires on their car? How many lives are they putting at risk if they don’t tighten properly? Outlaw wrenches & jacks? This is no laughing matter.

No more custom cars or bikes etc… made by “amateurs?”

Trying to protect every idiot on the face of the planet is killing me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It’s for the children !
DRM to combat crap unsafe counterfeiting !
Let us control what you do for your safety !

No thanks, I rather keep my freedom and control of what I do.

A good certification program for sellers is appropriate in this. It doesn’t really matter how the unsafe counterfeits were done with a 3D printer or a sweatshop to that respect.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Protection from liability is exactly why you need educated specialized people in a company and why you want to buy original parts today. 3D-printing will not kill the existing industry as things stand today. It is already used for exactly what it is best at: Prototyping and practical research.
The only true problem for companies are fears of massive increase in pirated hardware. For now it is only fears, uncertainties and doubts. If it gets to be a problem I am pretty sure that politicians are ready to smash the dangerous machine thorugh laws!

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You’re missing something here. If you are the manufacturer of a product, and a key piece of your product that’s necessary for its safe functioning is so prone to failure that there’s a market for shoddy counterfeit parts–your problem’s not the counterfeit parts–it’s the originals, and you might want to recall them to be fixed before you get sued.

tqk says:

At some point, some bright bulb will start to produce, using 3D printing, these critical components, and start selling them. They may not work as intended, and may lead to accidents or unintended harm to equipment or end users. There will be much in the liability field here.

The licences I see, using free software, generally allude to the fact that nothing is guaranteed. It’s not even guaranteed to work. “If it breaks, you get to keep both pieces.”

I’d also expect the developer to query the machine to see if it’s supplied with the requisite raw material to actually make the part. My normal printers notice when they’re out of paper or ink.

Bart Petherick (user link) says:

3D Printing

Just pure greedy just another company saying they want a peace of everyone’s cake.

3D Printing is the biggest new kid on the block and could even the playing field for rest of world, keep us all free from recession .

It will save time ,money and resources help the environment so people can have what they want, when they want.

Americans seems to have rushed through this patent to corner the market and destroy the right of others next thing you will have (swat) kicking your door in taking your equipment as-if your printing money.

All I can say is go team U.S of(A) gotta love those yanks

TOG says:

Incentives for R&D?

I agree with the desire to control the 3D printer that you own.

However, what incentive do individuals and companies have to invent new products that can be printed at home using a 3D printer if they cannot control the licensing of the product?

I’m not talking about something simple and generic here. What happens when 3D home printing gets sufficiently sophisticated to allow the printing of electronic devices like a phone? If you want an android phone, will the consumer simply print whatever hardware they can obtain freely and then license the software? At this time, it’s much easier to “pirate” the software than it is the hardware. From where do revenues arrive? Does this not destroy incentives for companies to innovate and make a product that works “better”?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Incentives for R&D?

License the software for an Android phone? I take it you’ve never heard of CyanogenMod.

And when it no longer takes large companies to design and manufacture phones, those companies should either start doing something that’s still relevant, or just shut down altogether.
What, should the government grant them an arbitrary right to stay in business, despite the fact that nobody needs them anymore?

FarSide (profile) says:

Re: Incentives for R&D?

We aren’t anywhere near the stage of being able to print a whole phone. Or even the different parts.

We aren’t in Diamond Age yet.

At the moment, home 3d printers deal in plastics. And mainly ones that are good at melting, but not great in other ways.

It’s also not exactly free to make stuff – just like the ink in your regular printer isn’t free. Economies of scale would indicate that depending on complexity of the part, making your own ‘pirated’ copy could cost you more than buying an official item.

And say we do get to Diamond Age levels, where you have machines creating different molecules on the fly and assembling things from the molecular level (which is what you need to make working electronics in a “printer”)

I have a hunch things would be so different in that future that this pirating discussion would be irrelevant.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Incentives for R&D?

Since we’re going all sci-fi…if we ever get to a point in time where 3D printers can make something as complex as a smart phone, I highly doubt monetary incentives will be as important as they are today . This is in the realm of Star Trek replicators, so just about everything could be made for the cost of the raw materials and electricity used to make it, so the only truly finite things would be electricity and raw materials, and by then we may have solved those–infinite energy through fusion or high efficiency solar/wind/geothermal/water power and energy to matter conversion.

Machin Shin (profile) says:

“just as media companies would doubtless love to make computers running free software illegal.”

They might not have managed to make running free software illegal. What they did manage doing is make it so if your using free software you cannot legally enjoy your media. This is one of the big problems I ran into running Linux. In order to watch movies I bought and paid for I have to break several laws to watch them on a linux box. Needless to say my efforts to go “legit” did not last long….

I hold out hope that one day these morons will learn that guys like me do not give a damn about their stupid restrictions. I bought my movie on a bluray and I’m now going to watch that movie when, where, and how I damn well please. Your DRM is not going to stop me, all it will do is piss me off and make me less likely to spend money on a movie in the future.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Until you discover that the $100 lego set requires $250 worth of raw materials and a $1000 printer to make.

It’s very unlikely that 3D printing will get even close to matching the costs (and retail price) of injection molded plastic parts. It’s a pipe dream the 3D printing people are trying to push, but it’s just not very realistic.

How much is material, anyway? It looks like about $20-$40 a pound for the raw material, and with waste, it’s not likely that you can produce anything cheaper than injection molding.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Personally, I’m incredibly happy that Intellectual Ventures was the one to file. We know that IV won’t produce any actual products using the patent, and we know that they’ll charge absurdly high fees to license the patent. Ultimately, it’s now less likely that in the future there will be any printers with DRM, let alone all of them.

Dio Gratia (profile) says:

Limitations on copyright to 3D objects

17 USC ?101

?Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works? include two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, and technical drawings, including architectural plans. Such works shall include works of artistic craftsmanship insofar as their form but not their mechanical or utilitarian aspects are concerned; the design of a useful article, as defined in this section, shall be considered a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work only if, and only to the extent that, such design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.

? 113

a) Subject to the provisions of subsections (b) and (c) of this section, the exclusive right to reproduce a copyrighted pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work in copies under section 106 includes the right to reproduce the work in or on any kind of article, whether useful or otherwise.

(b) This title does not afford, to the owner of copyright in a work that portrays a useful article as such, any greater or lesser rights with respect to the making, distribution, or display of the useful article so portrayed than those afforded to such works under the law, whether title 17 or the common law or statutes of a State, in effect on December 31, 1977, as held applicable and construed by a court in an action brought under this title.

A replacement part is a useful article and the extent of copyright is limited to features separate and existing independently of the use of the article. You can’t make exact copies unless the utilitarian (fitness for some purpose or worth to some end) nature doesn’t allow otherwise.

From House Report 94-1796

The broad language of section 106(1) and ofsubsection (a) ofsection 113 raises questions as to the extent of copyright protection for a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work that portrays, depicts, or represents an image of a useful article in such a way that the utilitarian nature of the article can be seen. To take the example usually cited, would copyright in a drawing or model of an automobile give the artist the exclusive right to make automobiles of the same design?

The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights stated, on the basis of judicial precedent, that ?copyright in a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work, portraying a useful article as such, does not extend to the manufacture of the useful article itself,? and recommended specifically that ?the distinctions drawn in this area by existing court decisions? not be altered by the statute. The Register?s Supplementary Report, at page 48, cited a number of these decisions, and explained the insuperable difficulty of finding ?any statutory formulation that would express the distinction satisfactorily.? Section 113 (b) reflects the Register?s conclusion that ?the real need is to make clear that there is no intention to change the present law with respect to the scope of protection in a work portraying a useful article as such.?

You could imagine that replacement parts fall within utilitarian constraints by and large.

Dio Gratia (profile) says:

Re: Limitations on copyright to 3D objects

Arrgh, House Report No. 94-1476, The legislative history for the Copyright Act of 1976.

Look to pages 54-55:

Correspondingly, the definition of ?pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works? carries with it no implied criterion of artistic taste, aesthetic value, or intrinsic quality. The term is intended to comprise not only ?works of art? in the traditional sense but also works of graphic art and illustration, art reproductions, plans and drawings, photographs and reproductions of them, maps, charts, globes, and other cartographic works, works of these kinds intended for use in advertising and commerce, and works of ?applied art.? There is no intention whatever to narrow the scope of the subject matter now characterized in section 5(k) as ?prints or labels used for articles of merchandise.? However, since this terminology suggests the material object in which a work is embodied rather than the work itself, the bill does not mention this category separately.

In accordance with the Supreme Court?s decision in Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201 (1954), works of ?applied art? encompass all original pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works that are intended to be or have been embodied in useful articles, regardless of factors such as mass production, commercial exploitation, and the potential availability of design patent protection. The scope of exclusive rights in these works is given special treatment in section 113, to be discussed below.

The Committee has added language to the definition of ?pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works? in an effort to make clearer the distinction between works of applied art protectable under the bill and industrial designs not subject to copyright protection. The declaration that ?pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works? include ?works of artistic craftsmanship insofar as their form but not their mechanical or utilitarian aspects are concerned? is classic language: it is drawn from Copyright Office regulations promulgated in the 1940?s and expressly endorsed by the Supreme Court in the Mazer case.

The second part of the amendment states that ?the design of a useful article ? shall be considered a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work only if, and only to the extent that, such design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.? A ?useful article? is defined as ?an article having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information.? This part of the amendment is an adaptation of language added to the Copyright Office Regulations in the mid-1950?s in an effort to implement the Supreme Court?s decision in the Mazer case.

In adopting this amendatory language, the Committee is seeking to draw as clear a line as possible between copyrightable works of applied art and uncopyrighted works of industrial design. A two-dimensional painting, drawing, or graphic work is still capable of being identified as such when it is printed on or applied to utilitarian articles such as textile fabrics, wallpaper, containers, and the like. The same is true when a statue or carving is used to embellish an industrial product or, in the Mazer case, is incorporated into a product without losing its ability to exist independently as a work of art. On the other hand, although the shape of an industrial product may be aesthetically satisfying and valuable, the Committee?s intention is not to offer it copyright protection under the bill. Unless the shape of an automobile, airplane, ladies? dress, food processor, television set, or any other industrial product contains some element that, physically or conceptually, can be identified as separable from the utilitarian aspects of that article, the design would not be copyrighted under the bill. The test of separability and independence from ?the utilitarian aspects of the article? does not depend upon the nature of the design?that is, even if the appearance of an article is determined by esthetic (as opposed to functional) considerations, only elements, if any, which can be identified separately from the useful article as such are copyrightable. And, even if the three-dimensional design contains some such element (for example, a carving on the back of a chair or a floral relief design on silver flatware), copyright protection would extend only to that element, and would not cover the over-all configuration of the utilitarian article as such.

The Supreme Court case Mazer v. Stein – 347 U.S. 201 (1954) makes the utiltarian/ornamentation distinction determining ornamental aspects of utilitarian objects are copyrightable, in the particular case lamp base sculpture art. Copyright doesn’t extend to the utilitarian aspects (an electric lamp).

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