Why 3D Printing Will Be The Next Big Copyright Fight

It's finally happening. That moment we've been hearing about for years - the one where futuristic-sounding 3D printing becomes ubiquitous - is actually upon us. President Obama even mentioned 3D printing in his State of the Union address.  As prices drop and the technology improves, consumers are awaiting this disruptive new era with bated breath.

So are intellectual property lawyers. 

Before long, many of us will be able to print physical objects as easily as we once burned DVDs. And just as the Internet made trading MP3 music files and ripped movies a breeze, downloading 3D images to print on your shiny new MakerBot printer will be as easy as torrenting "The Hurt Locker." 

3D Copyright Takedown Notices Begin

Last week, HBO sent a cease-and-desist letter to Fernando Sosa asking him to stop selling a 3D printed iPhone dock he modeled after the Iron Throne chair from the popular HBO TV series Game of Thrones.  Even though Sosa designed the dock himself in Autodesk Maya, HBO owns the rights to the show, its characters, and apparently the inanimate objects that appear onscreen. 

It has been two years since the first known Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice for a 3D printable object was sent. After 3D artist Ulrich Schwanitz created a printable version of the famous Penrose triangle optical illusion, another modeler mimicked (not copied) the 3D rendering necessary to print his own. Schwanitz sent a copyright infringement complaint, but then later rescinded it and released his design into the public domain. 

In that case, the dispute involved two individuals. Now bigger, better-funded copyright owners are getting involved. As user-generated 3D model marketplaces like Thingiverse and Shapeways grow, expect to see them flooded with creations based on trademarked and copyrighted material. And expect to hear about more takedowns, lawsuits and new legal precedents.  

Copyright and 3D Printing: It's Complicated 

Unlike music and movies, the relationship between copyright and physical objects is not always straightforward. In general, non-artistic objects - that is, items intended to be used rather than admired for their aesthetic value - do not typically fall under the scope of copyright law. Certain objects can be patented, as long as they're not overly generic. Try as you might, though, you can't patent a chair, for example, unless you've designed an entirely new type of chair. 

But what if you design a chair with a very unique ornamentation on the armrests? If you download my chair design and print yourself out a version of the chair for your very own, can I sue your brains out, RIAA-style

When it comes to copyright and objects, courts try to apply what's called a "severability" test. That is, can you "sever" the artistic part from the useful part? If so, the artistic part is typically protected by copyright. The strictly useful part is not. 

In a recent white paper titled "What Is The Deal With Copyright and 3D Printing?Public Knowledge explored these issues, but came up short on clear answers. Precisely how copyright law applies to 3D printing will be established only as the technology grows and lawsuits get filed. 

In the meantime, expect the intellectual property disputes to proliferate, almost as rapidly as the technology itself. 

Lead photo by Creative Tools