3D Printed Copyright Creep

from the copyright-keeps-spreading dept

When your car runs out of gas, you can fill it up at any gas station you like. You never worry if the company that made your car has an exclusivity deal with one gas station or another, or even if that company has a preference for one brand of gas. In fact, you would probably find it some combination of ridiculous, galling, and offensive if the company that made your car threatened you with a copyright infringement lawsuit if you didn’t go to their preferred gas station to fill up.

This dynamic is true for all sorts of things. Once you buy it, it is up to you to decide how you maintain it and replace what needs replacing. This is true of gas in a car, water in a bottle, and filters in a vacuum cleaner. But as software gets introduced into more and more everyday objects, some companies are trying to stretch copyright law beyond its limit in order to lock you into buying replacements only from them.

A decade ago, we saw this play out with 2D printers and toner ink. Some companies that made printers decided that they would prefer that consumers buy replacement toner (at a substantial markup) only from them. In order to attempt to lock themselves in as the only place to buy replacement toner, these companies designed their printers to look for a special verification chip on new toner cartridges to prove that the new cartridge came from them. When another company figured out a way around these chips, the printer manufacturers ran to copyright law to try and shut them down.

Fortunately, the courts saw through this ruse and were able to recognize that allowing consumers to choose where they get replacement toner for their printers has nothing to do with copyright law. Unfortunately, today some 3D printer manufacturers are trying this same gambit and hoping for a different outcome.

In a proceeding in front of the Copyright Office, 3D printer manufacturers offer a parade of horribles of what will happen [pdf] if users are free to choose the materials they use in their printers. Notably, none of these have anything to do with copyright. The only connection any of this has with copyright is that the printer manufacturers use a small line of code to verify if they sold the refills.

Just as adding a verification chip to a gas tank shouldn’t be used as a pretext to lock a car owner into a single source of gasoline, adding a verification chip shouldn’t be used as a pretext to lock a 3D printer user into a single source of 3D printing material.

3D printing is an emerging engine for innovation, and because of that this issue would be important even in isolation. However, the battle being fought over 3D printer material occurs against the backdrop of other attempts to use copyright as a pretext to limit consumer choice in all sorts of contexts. Be it accessing data from medical devices implanted in your body, repairing farm equipment that breaks down in the field, or unlocking your cell phone, the current proceeding before the Copyright Office ? known as the “1201 triennial” after the part of the law that created it ? is a preview of a future where manufacturers have the power to lock consumers into whatever they please.

That is what makes the Registrar of Copyrights’ decisions so important in this proceeding. Not only will the right decision clear the way for consumer choice. Strongly siding with users and against copyright creeping into everything sends a strong message that copyright has its purpose, but that it should not be abused.

Public Knowledge is hosting a 3D printing event at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center April 29 from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. This free event is an opportunity to engage with 3D printing experts on panels and interact with the latest 3D printing technology. You may register here.

Michael Weinberg is a 3D printing advocate and can be found at michaelweinberg.org. He is a former Vice President of Public Knowledge and currently IP & General Counsel of Shapeways, but writes here in his personal capacity.

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Comments on “3D Printed Copyright Creep”

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15 Comments
TheResidentSkeptic says:

Cognitive Dissonance or Massive Irony?

Not sure which is winning here… but trying to force users to only use your materials in your device which is designed to go around copyrights, patents, and trademarks by letting me make my very own Left Shark is definitely a trophy-winner in one (or both) of these categories. Might even make Honorable Mention in the Massive Entitlement Based Ego category.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Wise judge: “The case law I’m looking at states that you can’t use technological restrictions to lock consumers into exclusivity deals on printer cartridges. The fact that the printing occurs with a third, extra dimension doesn’t create new copyrightable material, so consumers are fully entitled to jailbreak their 3D printers.”

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You might be right, but it won’t be so until a whole lotta money is spent on lawyers in what will probably be a bunch of test cases. Unfortunately that means either a bunch of rich people with little else to spend their money on get pissed off, or a bunch of crowdfunding to support multiple little guys getting through the system.

DB (profile) says:

I’m surprised that this is an issue. It has already been decided. The point of copyright is to grant a limited-time monopoly on reproducing a specific artistic work. It is not a backdoor into controlling some other market. It was clearly decided for video game cartridges, then decided again for printer cartridges.

The ruling were not about cartridges. They were about the principle of mis-using copyright in attempt to get an exclusive right to sell some other product. Call you thing a ‘pod’ doesn’t change the principle. Nor does calling it a ‘filament’.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The companies trying these stunts have no reason not to at least attempt it, and every reason to do so. Sure they might end up losing in court eventually, but that requires someone willing to pay a hefty amount of money to fight back, and until that happens they get to enjoy their little ‘monopoly’, and all the cash it brings.

Anonymous Coward says:

WHICH 3D printer companies are doing this?

Necause I’m currently in the market for 4 (medium to high-end) 3d printers for my workplace and even if these particular companies now back down, I will be making a recommendation NOT to use those companies for any reason whatsoever as they can no longer be trusted.

ESPECIALLY in light of the fact that some 3d printers have upgradeable firmware, so they could add DRM at any point in the future.

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