from the 3d-printing-and-copyright dept
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.