3 Steps To Figure Out 3D Printing and Copyright

Overview of 20-page paper: 3 Steps for Licensing Your 3D Printed Stuff

As 3D printing continues to grow, concerns over how you handle or use a 3D model or 3D file are increasing. Many major corporations are worried about their products being “stolen” or reverse-engineered by 3D scanners or more commonly by simple 3D capture apps that work from any smartphone.

The recent Left Shark debate or debacle, which involved Fernando Sosa, a friend of mine from Orlando, Florida, who I met while on the 3DRV roadtrip and the rather-famous Katy Perry and her lawyer team issued a cease and desist letter to Mr. Sosa after he created a “Left Shark” figurine and then 3D printed it for sale on his Shapeways storefront.

Copyright is part of this debate, although I think at the end, Katy Perry’s team went for a trademark on the Left Shark.

I have been studying this 3D printing and copyright issue or topic for a while and each time I do some searching one name pops up: Michael Weinberg. You can also read Mr. Weinberg's blogs at Shapeways. And if you really need a Left Shark in your life, Mr. Sosa's creation is here

In an easy-to-read, 20-page ebook, 3 Steps for Licensing Your 3D Printed Stuff [PDF], Weinberg outlines a three-step process to figure out what you need to license and if you can. As you might expect, the paper is itself Creative Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA. With that, I’m pulling in the three steps into this post, but you should download his PDF (link above).

Figure out which elements of your object or object file are eligible for copyright protection

This can be much harder in the world of physical objects than it is with exclusively digital works. Unlike with code or photographs, with physical objects you may actually have to search out what parts are and are not protected by copyright. You may also need to make a distinction between the object and the file that represents the object—something that rarely occurs in the more traditional copyright world. While this can be complicated, this paper will try to make it as intuitive and straightforward as possible.

Understand what copyright does—and does not—allow you to control

Although it sometimes can feel otherwise, a copyright that protects a work does not  control every use of that work.1 Understanding what your copyright allows you to control— and what remains out of your control—is critical to thinking about how to license things.

For example, you may have a copyright on a file that represents an object, but not on  the object itself. In that case, you should be clear-eyed about the fact that even the most restrictive license on the file will not stop people from reproducing the object without your permission.

Choose your license

After you understand what parts of your work are protected by copyright, and what that copyright protections actually mean, it is time to think about licensing. Once you understand what you have the legal right to control, you can start deciding how you want to exercise that control.

This Paper is Only About Copyright

Your 3D object might be protected by more than copyright. It could be protected by patent, or by trademark. So why is this paper only about copyright? Mostly because copyright protection is free. If you create something that is eligible for copyright protection, it automatically gets copyright protection free of charge. There are good reasons to register your copyright, but registration is not required for protection. This means that you get a copyright without ever filling out paperwork, consulting a lawyer, or even wanting it in the first place.

This issue is not going to get any easier, or simpler, so if you are in the business of creating new models, know your rights or what rights you want to share. I have found many in 3D will often give a GPL or CC-BY-SA license from Creative Commons. Frankly, it is complicated. I am grateful for guys like Michael Weinberg who is helping to sort it out for the little guys, and the big guys.

These few questions should get you started and then get his ebook. Mr. Weinberg closed up with it is “best to remember the importance of asking, “What can I protect?” before jumping right to “How can I protect it?.”

I also want to give a hat tip to author and BoingBoing contributor, Cory Doctorow for his post on Demystifying copyright licensing and 3D printing that mention (again) Michael Weinberg and it is where I found the PDF.  He lists several other papers and resources from Public Knowledge, the organization where Mr. Weinberg worked and wrote his various papers and e-books. Ready Cory’s post about demystification at the above link.