DuetsBlog Collaborations in Creativity & the Law

Printing Infringement: Are 3-D Printers the Next Napster?

Posted in Copyrights, Counterfeits, Fair Use, Infringement, Patents, Product Configurations, Technology, Trademarks

Happy 2016! I hope everyone had a fun and festive New Year celebration.

As for me, I’ll be spending my three-day weekend tinkering with this:

Thanks to my thoughtful husband and the rapidly increasing availability and affordability of these products, I am the proud new owner of a 3-D printer.  It’s basically been running nonstop since I first turned it on.

The computer builds an object by extruding hot plastic into a series of 2-D layers.  The software converts a 3-dimensional design file, like a CAD drafting file, into a series of these layers, and converts the design into a format that the printer can understand.

Here are a few of the things I’ve printed so far:

image1

image2

image3

It’s incredible that 3-D printers have nearly reached a level of plug-and-play availability.  This printer requires some occasional calibration and maintenance, and the objects take hours to print. But it’s generally easy to use, and the software is surprisingly user-friendly.

Some of our guest authors have written before about the impending intellectual property implications of 3-D printing. See here, here, here, and here.  In 2012, Jason Voiovich even predicted such 3-D printing accessibility.

I didn’t design the files for the objects I printed.  Someone else designed them and uploaded them on the Internet for others to freely use.  Websites like Thingiverse and Shapeways allow users to upload their designs.

It wasn’t until I made that baby Groot (Guardians of the Galaxy character) figurine that I started thinking about the intellectual property implications.

This technology allows people to create just about any physical object.  An individual could reproduce a copyrighted work or an item covered by a product configuration trademark or design patent.  An individual could even produce components for a functioning device covered by a utility patent.

There are a couple pathways to infringement here.  First, there’s the designer who creates the drawing file of baby Groot.  Secondly, there’s the individual who downloads the design file and physically prints out the baby Groot object (in this case, me).

Toy company Hasbro had the forethought to partner with Shapeways to license design files for printing Hasbro characters.  Hasbro is even allowing individuals to sell the objects they print.

Other IP holders have taken a different approach.  Thingiverse and Shapeways have both received Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices.  There were 3-D print files for the Penrose triangle, and remember Katy Perry’s left shark?  The DMCA allows copyright holders to alert a website of infringing content so that the site can remove the content in an effort to avoid liability.  However, the DMCA does not provide a remedy for trademark or patent holders.

Is 3-D printing going to become the next Napster?  It’s unclear at this point, but we’re surely headed toward a clash between existing IP laws and this emerging technology.