CopyCADs: 3D Printing, Copyright, and Digital Files

By Elisabeth Schiffbauer

3D printing emerged and started to gain recognition as an established manufacturing technology in the late 1970s. Over the past 30 years, the development of 3D printing has led to cost-efficient 3D printers readily available for use by private individuals. 3D printers allow individuals to print complicated parts and objects from design files that are accessible and easily shared via the Internet. While 3D printers present economic and environmental advantages regarding the manufacturing and distribution of goods, there are concerns of such use and the scope and operation of intellectual property law. In recent years, copyright and its implications for digital files and computer aided designs (CADs) have generated much discussion.

How 3D Printing Works: A Brief Overview

Essentially, “a 3D printer is a machine that can turn a blueprint into a physical object.” Michael Weinberg, It Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology, 2 (Nov. 2010). Although there exist a number of competing designs, 3D printers generally operate in the same way. “Instead of taking a block of material and cutting away until it produces an object,” a 3D printer “builds the object up from tiny bits of material, layer by layer.” Id. This allows 3D printers to not only create individual parts for assembly, but also complex objects with internal, movable parts.

The 3D printing process starts with a blueprint or digital file, usually one created with a CAD program on a computer, producing a virtual 3D model of an object. The CAD design process replaces the need for prototypes made of malleable material, allowing a designer to create a model, freely manipulate a design, and save it as a file. “Alternatively, a 3D scanner can create a CAD design by scanning an existing object.” Id. at 3. Regardless of which process is used to create it, once a CAD design exists it can be distributed like any other computer file. Interestingly, how the file was created may impact its copyright status.

3D Printing and Copyright

For 3D printing, physical objects live in digital form in .amf format, or the older and more widely used .stl format. These files “can be thought of as the object equivalent of a .pdf file- they are more or less universally printable by 3D printers and allow objects to be transferred digitally around the world.” Michael Weinberg, What’s the Deal With Copyright and 3D Printing?,  14 (Jan. 2013). Stl files are “protectable” by copyright, however, that does not mean that every design file for a physical object is automatically protected by copyright. Id. Generally, designs are only protected by copyright “to the extent they go beyond the utilitarian requirements of designing a useful article.” Id. This becomes complicated in practice when objects combine useful and artistic elements.

Useful Objects

“Generally speaking, the existence of a digital file should not be used to claw useful objects out of the public domain.” Id. at 15. As discussed earlier, there are two ways to create digital design files – scanning and creating a CAD. While there is limited case law at this time, scans of useful objects have not warranted independent copyright protection. The justification for this is that “scans are not sufficiently ‘original’ to qualify for copyright protection.” Id. (citing Meshworks, Inc. v. Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc., 528 F.3d 1258 (10th Cir. 2008) (considering a 3D scan of a truck for use in commercials).

A useful object created in CAD software, however, may warrant protection if independent artistic elements are added to the otherwise useful object via the CAD process. A court may do a severability analysis for a given design file, focusing not on the object itself, but the contents of the file.

Creative Objects

Similar to useful objects, scans of creative objects do not create a new copyright. Contrastingly, scans of creative objects are copies of works already protected by copyright, which means anyone scanning a creative object needs the permission of the rightsholder of that object.

A creative object made in a CAD program creates a file that is protected by copyright. Copying and/or distributing the object in file or physical form requires permission from the rightsholder because a file or physical copy of the object is a copy or derivative work of the original CAD design.

Current Solutions

3D printing technology has brought the promise of allowing anyone to print anything just about anywhere, but with this comes the concern and potential proliferation of illegal copying, innocently, or willfully. It remains to be seen whether existing law will tackle the challenges presented by 3D printing, or whether this technology will warrant broad changes or new laws. In the meantime, scholars such as Michael Weinberg have suggested permissive licensing schemes for the distribution of objects and designs such as those provided by Creative Commons, and used by online 3D printing communities, such as Thingiverse. Id. at 20. Similar to the issues presented by peer-to-peer music file sharing, copyright owners may also use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to issue takedown notices to individuals and host sites with infringing CAD files. Other legal scholars have additionally suggested standards and tests to help courts grapple with current doctrine and the problems posed by 3D printing. See Kyle Dolinsky, CAD’s Cradle: Untangling Copyrightability, Derivative Works, and Fair Use In 3D Printing, 71 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 591 (2014).