3D printing: Overcoming the legal and intellectual property issues

In 3D printing, guns aren't the only tricky issues cropping up. The same types of legal and intellectual property issues that have haunted music and movies are about to get a lot broader.
Written by Erin Carson, Contributor on
Image: Lyndsey Gilpin/TechRepublic

When discussing 3D printing, few words are thrown around as frequently and casually as "disruptive." And while the term is widely overused in the startup world, when it comes to 3D printing and manufacturing this is an instance where the term actually applies.

As far as the relationship between 3D printing and intellectual property rights, though, this might just be another developing chapter in the uneasy story of technology and IP.

As it stands, there are numerous ways to violate intellectual property rights — be they copyrights, patents or trademarks. But the territory is so new, not much has been established regarding the repercussions of using a 3D printer for nefarious purposes. It's not even clear who might be liable. If someone starts printing and selling Mickey Mouse figurines, does Disney go after the person who printed one, the maker of the printer, the designer, the supplier of the material?

According to Mark Schonfeld, attorney at the Boston-based firm Burns & Levinson, looking to similar technologies of the past might help determine what happens going forward.

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled on Sony v. Betamax. People were worried that the VCR would lead to rampant copyright infringement because folks at home could potentially copy television shows or movies, and display them. The Supreme Court determined that the VCR was capable of substantial non-infringing purposes.

On the other hand, Napster was initially shut down because its usage was mostly infringement. Schonfeld thinks there's another lesson to learn from the near-disastrous effect of copyright infringement on the music industry — it's about how the existing institution handles the situation.

The RIAA, notably launched a series of lawsuits that targeted people like teenagers for thousands of dollars in damages.

"It backfired," Schonfeld said.

In September, CNET reported on how Japanese video game developer Square Enix asked Shapeways to take down Final Fantasy IV figurines designed by digital artist Joaquin Baldwin, after popularity boomed, partly thanks to Reddit.

Take a spin through a 3D printing marketplace like Shapeways or MakerBot's Thingiverse, and it's not hard to find figurines of South Park characters or Stormtroopers. Those items can stay on there until the copyright holder asks that they be taken down, said David Leichtman, partner at New York law firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act,  places like Thingiverse and Shapeways have a safe harbor defense — as long as they have a posted policy that says they'll take down infringing material if the copyright holder comes forward and requests it — since they're not actively encouraging the infringement.

Hasbro, though, is taking a different approach than solely policing the 3D marketplaces for IP infractions. They recently announced a partnership with Shapeways, allowing licenses to a group of artists to create fan art based on My Little Pony, a brand that's gone from 90s nostalgia to an unexpectedly intense subculture.

"Our community was asking whether they could do it, so we started this partnership to enable our community to make fan art-based products," said Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen. "You can only make original content with Shapeways, but of course there are a lot of people who are really passionate about existing [content]. If they can make those products based on existing IP, everybody wins. Hasbro will get money for their license, the designer will get money for their creativity, and Shapeways makes money to manufacture those products."

He also said he wouldn't be surprised if other brands adopted this model.

"I thought is was brilliant and really open-minded of Hasbro," said Susan Taing, founder of bhold, a company that uses Shapeways to 3D print "functional accessories" — things like espresso tumblers, cable organizers, and car mounts for Smartphones.

As a designer, Taing sees various sides of the IP issue. Stricter protections could help designers trying to make a living. But, designers willing to post their designs — rolling with the open source mentality — can also breed positive results.

Taing has filed patents for many of her designs. She talked about her double-walled cup, for example, a product that keeps the heat of hot liquid from reaching your hand.

"That part is not new, but I think the design aesthetic is what I've brought to it," she said.

The idea of protecting certain parts of a work is an area designers might want to make sure they understand. Leichter explained what can be protected and how. For instance, design can be protected.

"You can't protect, for example, the useful article aspects of 3D printing with copyright. You can protect it possibly with patent protection whether it's utility patent protection or design patent protections," he said. Copyright could protect the ornamental design elements as if it were sculpture or visual art.  

Thingiverse designer David Perry discussed this when talking about his F-F-Fiddle, a 3D-printed fiddle. Designs can be downloaded for free under a Creative Commons license. He knows it doesn't apply to the functional aspects, and at this point, he's fine with that.

"What I believe, which is something I've heard from prominent open source hardware advocates, is that we (those of us participating in the sharing) need to be less concerned with developing the legal landscape of patents and copyright, and more concerned with the development of the social norms, rewards, and social structure around open-source projects," he said.

For large companies with more at stake, though, and less of a desire to buy into various forms of community enablement, Schonfeld recommended this: "They need to be inspecting and monitoring the internet to watch for models that are being sold or distributed, or copyrighted figurines, because you're not going to be able to put a police officer in everybody's home."

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