CAD, Copyright and Creative Commons – Part 1, the infringement saga continues.

Once again, there is blood in the water, and it is only a matter of time before the Lawyers begin circling, armed with rows upon rows of razor-sharp Intellectual Property Law.  At the time of writing this post however, this accusation of copyright infringement remains solely between the two feuding parties; 3 Wharton School of Pennsylvania University students on one side, a possible 2000 Thingiverse users on the other.

The background to this story is simple, and if you were to substitute 3D Printing for 2D, then this would be an open and shut case.  However, the term 3D Printing seems to render confusion and debate where there need be none.  The case of Just3DPrint vs Thingiverse User Loubie is therefore a perfect microcosm, and potential legal precedent, for the critical importance of clear, transparent and well-understood IP law in regards to CAD, Scanning and 3D Printing; of which this post will focus primarily on the latter.

Thingiverse User Loubie, a notably popular Thingiverse uploader, noticed a 3D Print of one of her designs listed on eBay.  Following the listing to the Just3DPrint eBay store ran by 3 Wharton University students she discovered over 2,000 listings for 3D Printed objects.  The majority of these 3D Printed items for sale were claimed by Loubie, and subsequently confirmed by Just3DPrint, to be using Thingiverse user-uploaded content as the source data for 3D Printing.  Understanding her rights under the creative commons attribution she explicitly assigned her work (more on creative commons later), she contacted Just3DPrint and requested the listing that used her Intellectual Property (IP) be taken down.  To summarise Just3DPrint’s response, they refused.  Their response however sheds light on some common misconceptions surrounding digital 3D data particularly when 3D Printing is involved, so I’d like to quote it in full and then discuss each defence in turn.

When you uploaded your items onto Thingiverse for mass distribution, you lost all rights to them whatsoever. They entered what is known in the legal world as “public domain”.

The single exception to public domain rules are “original works of art”.

No court in the USA has yet ruled a CAD model an original work or art.

Therefore, you have no right to exclude others from utilizing the CAD models you have uploaded.

Furthermore, if in the future we do get a precedent in the USA for establishing CAD models as “original works of art”, we would still likely be just fine as we are not re-selling your CAD models, but rather “transformative” adaptions of them in the form of 3D printed objects. 

Public Domain

There are several leaps of IP imagination here, so let’s start with the claim of Public Domain.  Their defence to using Thingiverse data is that once a user uploads their data to the Thingiverse site they are relinquishing any legal ownership.  Authors (data creators) can explicitly do this by assigning a Public Domain License, or “CC0”, to their work which removes any ownership held by the original author and sets no restrictions on how the data is used going forward.  In the case of Loubie however, and the vast majority of data Just3DPrint has pulled from Thingiverse, she did not assign her work a CCO license, instead she assigned a CC-BY-NC license.  This creative commons license (see table 1) stipulates that anyone using this data must always, and explicitly, accredit the author (Loubie) and that it cannot be used for commercial purposes.  Just3DPrint are therefore in violation of the copyright Loubie has assigned her work.

cc table

Table 1

Original Works of Art

The second defence made by Just3DPrint is the claim that a CAD file is not a work of art.  This is a strawman argument as they seem to be accusing Loubie of attempting to claim copyright over the programming code that constitutes a CAD file, rather than the object represented in that CAD file.  The lines upon lines of digital code that form a CAD file cannot be copyrighted in the same logic clay, paint or printed words cannot copyrighted.  Just3DPrint is therefore correct if Loubie was attempting to copyright programming code.  What a CAD file, sculpture or piece of literature may depict, represent or communicate however is indeed protected by copyright.  The fact that Loubies work is represented in the form of 3D digital data does not remove the copyright protections of that work.  If Just3DPrint was indeed correct on this point (that digital 3D data is not copyrightable by virtue of it being digital) then by ad absurdum the entire digital entertainment economy as we know it today would not exist.

Transformative adaptation

The final defence made by Just3DPrint in their response to Loubie was that they are avoiding copyright infringement by transforming her data into a new medium or form.  This, like the previous defence, seems to stem from a misunderstanding of “improving on original art”.  Simply put, by changing the medium the work exists in (in this case digital code to layered PLA filament), you are not adapting and improving an original work and thus not avoiding associated copyright.  Again to use the digital entertainment industry to expand this argument, Digital IP owners (think Acitivsion, Blizzard and Disney) frequently issue take-down notices and file for copyright infringement when their digital IP is being used to produce un-licensed physical merchandise.

An existential Crisis?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if this were a story about 2D Printing where Loubie was the photographer and Just3DPrint was an art store, there would be little confusion regarding whose rights were being infringed.  Many of the same legal frameworks transition to the 3D world.

3D printing is a technology that will find increasing adoption in the consumer goods sector; an adoption driven by the multitude of benefits it enables such as the production of complex geometries, true customer-driven customisation of products and new in-store experiences.  As we move into this sector however, we must be keenly aware of the legal aspects of creating, handling and re-purposing digital data; be it by the brands or by the consumers.

In part 2 of this post, we will look at some examples of IP owners’ monetising their digital data via 3D Printing securely through various license arrangements, closed loop customizers and digital encryption technologies.