Licensing Your 3D Printed Stuff: Why 3D Printed Objects Challenge Our Copyright Beliefs

from the 3d-printing-and-copyright dept

This blog post is reprinted from Public Knowledge, and is quite timely. On Thursday of this week, we’ll be discussing this very topic at our Copia Inaugural Summit, with Natalia Krasnodebska from Shapeways. We’ll also be distributing copies of this new report at the event. If you haven’t signed up to attend or to join Copia, please check it out.

Among a host of other (arguably more important) wonders, widespread access to 3D printing raises all sorts of interesting intellectual property law questions. Some of these questions are the obvious result of combining physical objects, digital files, and the distributive power of the internet. Others, however, are less obvious. 3D printing has the potential to take many of the things we assume about intellectual property law and turn it on its head.

The past fifteen years or so have given us all a collective informal education in intellectual property law. We have been taught to assume that everything we see on our computer screen is protected by intellectual property law (usually copyright), and that copying those things without permission can often result in copyright infringement (and potentially lawsuits).

By and large, this has been a reasonable rule of thumb. The things that we most often associate with our computer screens ? those are the music, movies, software, photos, articles, and whatnot ? happen to also be the types of things that are protectable by copyrights. As copyright automatically protects things that are categorically eligible for protection, it is safe to begin from the assumption that the music, movies, software, photos, articles, and whatnot made in the last century that you find online are actively protected by copyright.

This easy assumption becomes less reasonable in the context of 3D printing. Many of the objects coming out of a 3D printer are simply not eligible for copyright protection. As ?functional? objects, they are beyond copyright?s scope. They may be protectable by patent, but because patent protection is not automatic, many of these objects will simply not be protected by intellectual property at all. The idea that something is entirely unprotected by copyright or patent would have felt perfectly natural 30 years ago, but can feel deeply disorienting today.

Furthermore, unlike those music, movies, software, photos, articles, and whatnot, we often have to treat a physical object and the digital file that represents that object differently in the context of 3D printing and intellectual property. Although we do not often draw the distinction between a song and an .mp3 file, there are many situations where we are called on to conceive of an object and its digital file as fundamentally different intellectual property entities.

The importance of this difference manifests itself when people start to talk about licensing 3D printed things. Taking a page from the more traditional digital world, the conversation often starts with the relative strengths and weaknesses of various licenses. However, beginning there skips a fundamental and easy-to-overlook step: before considering which license to use, you need to know what you are actually licensing.

It was easy to skip this step with traditional digital media because the answer to ?what can you license?? was almost always ?everything.? But in the context of 3D printing, the answer is just as likely to be ?nothing? or at least ?only some parts.? Understanding what is and is not available to license is a new skill for our collective intellectual property education, and it is a critical one in the world of 3D printing.

In order to start this process, today we at Public Knowledge are releasing a new whitepaper called Licensing Your 3D Printed Stuff. Instead of focusing on the differences between licenses, this paper walks you through how to figure out what is even available to license in the first place. Because until you understand that, everything else is just a detail.

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Comments on “Licensing Your 3D Printed Stuff: Why 3D Printed Objects Challenge Our Copyright Beliefs”

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31 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Wait until replicators are here

Replicators are not magic. Even an advanced replicator will not be able to transmute elements. If all the material a replicator has to work with is lightweight elements, it won’t be able to create the heavy elements needed for nuclear fission (even fusion nukes have a fission part).

Unless your replicator is so advanced that it can do fusion. But if your technology is so advanced that it can do fusion at will, you no longer need a nuke.

Anonymous Coward says:

“The idea that something is entirely unprotected by copyright or patent would have felt perfectly natural 30 years ago, but can feel deeply disorienting today.”

I would venture that, to 99.98% of the world’s population, that stament is bunk.

Anyway the questions I have are 2-fold: How would anyone know that I have produced an ‘infringing’ thing? How would I know that I am producing an ‘infringing’ thing? One way would be mandatory internet connection and for a vast library of ‘things’ to be checked before the printer allows printing. Even then, I could print the parts and hand-assemble the final object. I know, we have finally found a use for swarms of tiny wasp-sized drones – they will hover around us for our entire lives verifying that we are not breaking any of innumerable IP laws (to include origami and paper airplanes). Think of the jobs for lawyers!!! Think of the data centers the NSA will need!!! I cannot see a single downside! Aah, progress!

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

the statement is perfectly valid and so is your point.

The issue with 3D printers isn’t that they can print things covered under copyrights or patents.

I can paint, draw or make anything I damned well want too and use it myself without there being an ‘infringement’ of those copyrights or patents.

They expressly provide the monopoly over the consumer market…what I do on my own free time isn’t the consumer market.

Possibly patents might be violated if I can make and use something in my business otherwise under patent…but then it would be more of an argument that the patent should be invalidated if someone not skilled in the art can also make the same thing.

Still though if you’re not actively selling such things, it’s hard to see how it rises to the level of someone wanting to prosecute you.

In reality, nobody would likely ever know you printed a full size Princess Leia stature to, ahem, ‘dance’ with 😉

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It’s not about “producing” a copy of something under copyright. This is legal.

It’s about PUBLISHING which is restricted.

Really, even here on techdirt, where I would expect people to be a bit more educated about these things, the propaganda-induced idea that “copying” or “downloading” could be illegal is extremely widespread.

Conflating upload and download is of course the intention of the copyright MAFIAA which spreads this propaganda, and was of course helped by torrents and other peer2peer technology which uploads at the same time as it downloads.

But the truth is, copyright is about publishing, about uploads.

So you “Leia copy” is perfectly legal. You just can’t publish her ;).

Baron von Robber says:

H llo,

This is BvR from th futur . Apologi s for th font and sp lling but most fonts hav b n copyright d, including th l tt r ” “. I would s nd a pictur but all pictur s hav had all imag s within th m r mov d xc pt our h ads. Not v n hair is public domain as styl s hav b n pat nt d and copyright d.
Anyways, I’v got to cut this short, I’m about to m t my 1st of 89395 cap/t irs for data outbound.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

A Modest Proposal

…there are many situations where we are called on to conceive of an object and its digital file as fundamentally different intellectual property entities.

It’s not just intellectual property laws. Where possession of a traditional or 3D printed gun could be a parole violation, what of possession of a digital file of one? It’s a safe bet that prosecutors and civil liberties lawyers will take opposite side on this.

One can imagine the bickering over why a high-resolution 2D JPG image file of a gun would be OK, but a low-resolution 3D drawing file would not be. And if 3D is the problem, what of the 3D gun representations in the suspect’s video games?

Suppose that a 3D mesh of a bong is illegal. What if the file is hosted in another country where it’s legal? Would it be illegal to link to a library of 3D meshes, if one of those meshes happens to be illegal in your country?

Will the US have the site administrator extradited, as they do for Canadians who sell pot paraphernalia into the US? Or if the site owner happens to visit the US, even without breaking US law while there, can he be locked up as Dmitri Sklyarov was for writing anti-Adobe DRM software?

I propose consulting with ISIS on these issues, lest a more fanatical and unreasonable organization like the RIAA or MPAA jumps in with its own agenda.

Given that 3D printing a likeness of Mohammed obviously violates their rules, what about merely hosting a 3D mesh without printing it? Do you behead the original artist who created it, the web site owner, or the CEO of the hosting company who owns the server?

What about printing the mesh file in binary form on a T-Shirt, as some did with CSS cracking code for DVDs, and AACS keys for HD-DVD and Blu-Ray? Should you execute someone on the street for that? Or would putting a knife through it and staining it with the blood of an infidel – even in binary form – also be a sin?

What if the mesh shows up on BitTorrent? Does this take the attacks on The Pirate Bay to the next level? Or would ISIS collaborate with the MPAA to take them down?

This will have to be thought out ahead of time, and the decisions can guide other intellectual property law far better anything we can expect from those other IP trade associations.

antidirt (profile) says:

Interesting paper, Michael. Two thoughts: Your claim that “a set of instructions for making the object” is not copyrightable seems overly broad. Most computer code is functional, yet it’s still protectable. I don’t think your analogy to a recipe works as cleanly as you’d like. Second, I wonder if there’s an argument for a noncopyrightable object being a derivative work of the underlying copyrighted file. Before sound recordings received federal protection, it was still infringement to use them as they were derivative works of the underlying compositions. I think that logic could be applied here. Fascinating stuff!

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Do you have a reference for that other than a court document? Those are kind of boring. 🙂

I have no problem reading court documents. A reference to an actual court document that backs antidirt’s rambling would be helpful for me, but he doesn’t even provide those.

Luckily, The US Copyright Office has a report that seems to debunk some of what he says. Specifically covered was the fact that the US Supreme Court in 1908 held in White-Smith vs. Apollo that “a piano roll was not a ‘copy’ of the musical composition embodied in it because the composition could not be ‘read’ from the roll by the naked eye.” In 1976, the copyright law was enacted that “fixed” this issue.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Sometimes he does. Thanks for the link – looks like antidirt was off base on this one, and I’m guessing he won’t reply.

At least partially off-base. The study goes much further into the uncertainty, saying that various laws were passed between 1908 and 1976 that tried to fix the problem, but they weren’t able to actually fix it until 1976.

I am not a lawyer…and I most certainly could be wrong. Just don’t think everything is as black and white as antidirt seems to think it is.

antidirt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I have no problem reading court documents. A reference to an actual court document that backs antidirt’s rambling would be helpful for me, but he doesn’t even provide those.

Luckily, The US Copyright Office has a report that seems to debunk some of what he says. Specifically covered was the fact that the US Supreme Court in 1908 held in White-Smith vs. Apollo that “a piano roll was not a ‘copy’ of the musical composition embodied in it because the composition could not be ‘read’ from the roll by the naked eye.” In 1976, the copyright law was enacted that “fixed” this issue.

White-Smith was decided before the 1909 Act, but IIRC, the 1909 Act codified that holding. I don’t deny that sound recordings were not protected by federal law before 1972. My point is that the underlying compositions were protected, and some courts considered sound recordings to be derivative works of those protected recordings. See, for example, the Ninth Circuit: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=18354639784050759742

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

My point is that the underlying compositions were protected, and some courts considered sound recordings to be derivative works of those protected recordings.

And my point was that that was not always the case (as the US Copyright Office document I linked stated.) The Supreme Court ruled that it wasn’t a derivative work in 1908, and Congress decided to change that (well, according to the Copyright Office survey, they tried to change it) in the 1909 Copyright Act.

The problem was, that Congress wasn’t fully bought by the bribes that they were receiving from the Copyright Industry, and decided that maybe, just maybe, if they gave the Industry everything it wanted, that they would lock away everything, so they mandated compulsory licensing as part of the 1909 Act. The underlying compositions were protected, but as long as the company turning them into records or piano rolls paid based on statutory rates and requirements, they could copy them without protestation by the composition owner. Not a full copyright, but kinda one.

That was fixed in 1976, though some states fixed it sooner.

R says:

Copyright Laundering

If a 3d printer file is copyrightable, but the 3d printed object is not, then is a 3d printer file generated from the object a derivative work? What about a file generated from a video of the object being 3d printed?

It seems to be a similar problem to that of taking photos of statues, where the answer varies with jurisdiction.

Anonymous Coward says:

Many of the objects coming out of a 3D printer are simply not eligible for copyright protection. As “functional” objects, they are beyond copyright’s scope.

Who is to say whether any printed 3D object is a “functional” object and not some kind of art? What about things that quality as both functional and artistic at the same time, or depending on their particular use at any given time, such as an ornamental paperweight?

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