3D Printing Law – Does Copyright Law Cover 3D Printed Materials?

The U.S. Constitution states that our patent and copyright law should “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Two centuries later, the debate about what to promote and what to protect through copyright law continues. Recently, the House Judiciary Committee began an overdue examination into whether the copyright laws need updating as it considered the legality of uploading copyrighted files to peer-to-peer networks. But politicians are overrun by armies of lobbyists and their PACs, all trying to strengthen rather than loosen the copyright monopoly Congress bestows. Thankfully, technology moves quicker than Congress and such innovations as the VCR and personal video recorder survived misguided legislative murder attempts.

Our challenge now is to make sure the 3D printing ecosystem does not die death from a thousand cuts.

Thingiverse, a website that allows people to post and share designs for 3D printers, has been fielding Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices since at least 2011. Last year, the company that owns the rights to the Tintin comics issued a takedown notice to Thingiverse over a toy design uploaded by one of the site’s users. The original design – for a simple model based on a rocket from the comic – was removed, but another popped up in its place.

The Tintin rocket is a great, small-scale example of the potential for collaboration and innovation in 3D printing. Though the original design was removed from Thingiverse, another user posted a similar design for a Christmas tree ornament based on the rocket. And someone else modified the idea so it could be illuminated, and then redesigned it again so other users could personalize the ornament with their names or other text. Out of just one idea, at least three new products were created, each improving on the last and providing a product that wouldn’t have otherwise been available. Innovation in 3D printing isn’t just about replicating things. It’s about taking an idea and modifying it to make something even better.

The same example illustrates just how inadequate our copyright system can be at protecting intellectual property, while fostering an environment that allows innovation to thrive in the wake of new technologies. Rights holders need to move away from suing or threatening to sue every potential copyright violator, and embrace a system that makes it easy and affordable for at-home 3D printers to access legal and licensed designs. iTunes’ licensing model is a good example. Just as the recording industry has adapted to digital music downloads and found revenue in other areas like touring and merchandise, the creative content and manufacturing industries will have to adapt to 3D printing. And we’ll all be better off for it, with more access to unique, innovative products and services.

It took more than 20 years from the Copyright Act of 1976 to the establishment of “safe harbors” with the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998. Yet the Internet now puts the world within our reach in ways no one imagined 40 years ago, that were just glimmers of possibility at the turn of this century when DMCA was passed. We can’t let another 20 years go by before we enact appropriate policies that work in today’s constantly changing Internet era.