3D printing pirates: When eBay thieves profit from your work

Who owns the rights to digital objects? 3D printing has reached into the mainstream far enough that mainstream problems are beginning to manifest.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: loubie on Thingiverse

Software is easy to steal. This is not new.

As far back as the 1980s, when I sold products for early Macs on actual disks, pirates uploaded copies of my products to pirate boards. In the mid-2000s, when I sold iPhone apps, some shmuck copied not only the apps, but the actual ad copy, the descriptions my wife painstakingly wrote, and posted them to the app store. This article, like most that I write, will likely be copied in its entirety and posted on other web sites. Other sites will "spin" the words in this article algorithmically for SEO benefit.

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And, as we've come to know, software isn't just software. The music industry had a full-on cow when people starting ripping CDs and sharing them online. The movie and television industries followed closely behind.

Even books suffer from this fate. A book I chose to make available online for free through a non-profit has been downloaded, and then resold, by unscrupulous pirates. For a while (I haven't heard about it recently) collections of many of your favorite blog authors (including me) found that their articles were combined into Kindle books and sold by some make-a-buck artists through Amazon.

WordPress plugins and themes that are free on WordPress.org have been downloaded and sold as commercial products to unsuspecting dupes by unscrupulous resellers. Worse, commercial plugins and themes have been bought, padded with malware payloads, and resold to the public for "bargain pricing."

This happens with smartphone apps as well. There are a bunch of third-party app stores out there that sell highly discounted versions of commercial apps. The catch? The original developers aren't getting paid, and the buyers often find themselves getting not only a discount, but a very nasty malware infection.

So is it any surprise -- now that 3D printing is growing -- that virtual objects have started to be ripped off as well?

Here's the gist of the situation. A large community of object designers who create objects for 3D printers post their design files to sharing sites like Thingiverse. 3D printer owners can download those files and print them out, resulting in physical objects.

The analogy of PDFs to paper printers is a good one. Someone writes a document, like a book, and shares it online. Someone else downloads it and prints it.

Exterminate! Exterminate!

"Exterminate! Exterminate!"

Very early on in ZDNet's DIY-IT discovery series on 3D printers, I downloaded a model of a Dr. Who Dalek and printed it out. It now lives on my actual desk. I also downloaded a design for a cord holder, resized that design, and printed myself a set of very useful holders that organize some of my cables.

You get the idea.

The darkness is creeping into 3D printing

But what's happening is that we're starting to see less-than-savory people download 3D designs from Thingiverse and then sell the 3D prints based on those designs. The patient zero of this new phenomenon is a Thingiverse user who created a 3D model of a dragon. An eBay seller has been found selling plastic dragons generated from that design (although the eBay listing is no longer available).

The discussion right now is centering on that one eBay seller (who I'm not going to name), who has, at this moment, over 2000 auctions listed on eBay. Most seem directly based on Thingiverse designs, and even use pictures snagged from the actual Thingiverse postings.

I have no doubt this will not be the first such seller to pull these shenanigans, and that many more 3D designs will be purloined and used as the basis of for-sale objects.

My small orange tray​

My small orange tray... is it art?

At the core of this issue is the question of who owns the rights to digital objects. Legal case after legal case has supported the right of the originator, the copyright-holder, to "own" his or her own digital creation -- even in the case of public postings.

Take, for example, the small angled box I built as a demonstration of 3D design basics. I posted that onto Thingiverse using the Creative Commons - Attribution license. What that means is that I, as the copyright holder, allow users to use, modify, and even sell it -- as long as they attribute the original design to me.

Now, in practice, that was a ten-minute disposable design used as a training exercise, so I don't really care what happens to it. But that's hardly the point. I've granted specific rights, which are conditional on specific behavior. The historical case law covering this sort of thing says I can take action to protect my rights if I feel that I've been wronged by someone.

By contrast, the dragon design uses an Attribution - Non-Commercial - No Derivatives license, which means that people can't remix the design, and can't make money off of it, but they can repost the design -- as long as attribution is granted to the author.

Reasonable people normally respect these licenses, but there are a lot of not-reasonable people in this world. As I said earlier, some of those people are coming out of the woodwork and starting to see dollar signs in using their 3D printers to make prints based on other peoples' designs.

This is a troubling issue for MakerBot, who operates Thingiverse. Make no mistake about it. Thingiverse is a true wonder. There are millions of objects posted on that site, and you can just download them and make them real. It is one of those "we live in the future" astonishing experiences that sometimes just hits you in the face when working with 3D printing.

But there are practical issues for Thingiverse as well. If designers start to lose confidence that their designs are safe in that community, there will be fewer people posting designs. If the community starts to feel less than collegial, users might not feel as comfortable using the site. An incredible resource might lose its momentum.

But Thingiverse has other challenges. Any quick look will notice tons of Star Wars, Dr. Who, and other designs. These are obviously not public domain or even Commons-based designs, but fans love them. These are commercial likenesses protected vigorously by their copyright holders. There is some level of Fair Use involved, and it's entirely unlikely the BBC will be harmed in any way if I have a Dalek on my desk, but it is an issue.

The Rocinante

The Rocinante, my favorite ship from The Expanse

Thingiverse has actually started to partner with some entertainment-related copyright holders, which is why you can "Remember the Cant" in plastic, right on your 3D printer. Aside: that phrase is from the Syfy network series The Expanse. If you haven't seen The Expanse, you must run, not walk, to your nearest streaming provider and watch it. It's as good as the remake of Battlestar Gallactica. It's frakin' awesome!

Returning back to the issue of the eBay seller who swiped the dragon design and thousands like it, and is selling plastic products based on those designs, MakerBot is taking some action. In a blog post on this issue, MakerBot states, "MakerBot is committed to protecting the rights of its community members. In the case of the eBay seller mentioned above, our legal team is preparing communication to the appropriate parties."

I reached out to the folks at MakerBot for further insight on this developing challenge. Nadav Goshen, president of MakerBot, had this to say:

Thingiverse has helped popularize 3D printing by creating a vibrant community and making it easy to discover, make. and share 3D designs. One of the cornerstones of Thingiverse's success is its openness, which allows designers to collaborate and iterate on each others' designs.

When users upload designs to Thingiverse, they can choose licenses that determine how others can use their designs. We respect those choices and expect others to do so as well. The misuse of these licenses is something we take very seriously and in this particular case, our legal team is preparing communication to the appropriate parties.

Most likely, eBay will get involved and with lots of other copyright violators we've seen over the years. A game of legal whack-a-mole is probably about to begin.

What can we learn from this?

So how should you think about this whole thing? What does it really mean? Let's address that first from a big picture perspective, and then from a practical suggestions level.

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From the big picture perspective, once again we are seeing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Each time wondrous new technology is introduced to the world great things happen, but once that technology reaches some level of mainstream adoption, all the good and bad of human nature emerges. One way to interpret this is that 3D printing has reached into the mainstream far enough that mainstream problems are beginning to manifest.

From a practical perspective, think carefully about what you post. This should be a rule of life tatooed on the inside of everyone's eyelids. Think carefully about what you post -- whether that's a tweet, a Facebook comment, a blog post, or a 3D design. Once it's out in the world, it's out in the world.

Amazing collections of free online resources inevitably result in someone deciding to mine those resources to make money off of them. For 3D designers specifically, think carefully about what license you want to use. I chose to let people benefit commercially from my design (as long as they give me design credit) because, well, seriously, it's not much of a design. But if I were trying to make a living off of my work, that would be a different story.

Choose the license carefully, based on how you want to restrict use. If you choose the license I chose, and someone gives you credit, but prints your design for money, you don't have a leg to stand on. If you choose a non-commercial license, you may still not find it easy to stand up for your rights (and legal fees are insanely expensive), but you will have rights that you can stand up for.

As for those "stealing" others' designs, you, too, need to look at the licensing on the designs. Undoubtedly, there are thousands of "go make money" licensed products on Thingiverse that do not limit commercial use.

If you want to make a business out of 3D printing objects for people, go for it. Just do it while respecting the licenses granted. There's just no upside to you for stealing designs: It's a scummy thing to do, it opens you to legal attacks and banning, and -- from a simply practical point of view -- there are thousands of good, freely licensed designs you can use.

Also, if you are selling prints based on someone's design, and you're contacted by the designer, be polite. If you're asked to stop selling a design, stop selling the design, or negotiate a compromise that works for both of you. There is just no real benefit to angering the design community, and you'll live with less stress. After all, wouldn't it be nicer to know you have the support of designers than to live under the cloud of possible legal action and banning?

So, there you go folks. Welcome to the 21st century. Now that we have basic Star Trek replicator technology in our homes, we have to worry about who gets to replicate what, and for how much. Yay, progress.

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