Copyright Law, DMCA, and 3D Printing: A Detailed Whitepaper
Michael Weinberg has published an extensive whitepaper about the potential impact of Copyright Law on the emerging 3D printing industry.
3D printing provides an opportunity to change the way we think about the world around us. It merges the physical and the digital. People on opposite sides of the globe can collaborate on designing an object and print out identical prototypes every step of the way. Instead of purchasing one of a million identical objects built in a faraway factory, users can customize pre-designed objects and print them out at home. Just as computers have allowed us to become makers of movies, writers of articles, and creators of music, 3D printers allow everyone to become creators of things.
3D printing also provides an opportunity to reexamine the way we think about intellectual property. The direct connection that many people make between “digital” and “copyright” is largely the result of a historical accident. The kinds of things that were easiest to create and distribute with computers – movies, music, articles, photos – also happened to be the types of things that were protected by copyright. Furthermore, it happened to be that the way computers distribute things – by copying – was exactly the behavior that copyright regulated. As a result, copyright became an easy way to (at least attempt to) control what people were doing with computers.
In the whitepaper, Weinberg explains how copyright law and the DMCA will apply to 3D printing. He also describes the first case of copyright infringement: the Penrose triangle.
The story of the first 3D printing-related copyright takedown request is a case in point. A designer named Ulrich Schwanitz created a 3D model for an optical illusion called a “Penrose triangle.” He uploaded his design to a website, Shapeways, that allows designers to sell 3D printed objects and invited the public to purchase a copy in the material of their choice. He also, for better or worse, both claimed that creating this design was a massive design achievement and refused to tell anyone else how he made the object.
As is often the case on the internet, shortly thereafter another designer, Thingiverse user artur83, uploaded a Penrose triangle with the comment:
Unlike Shapeways, the website Thingiverse is built around sharing design files. As a result, because it was now up on Thingiverse anyone could download the design, understand how it worked, and print out their own version at home.
Schwanitz did not appreciate artur83′s behavior and sent a request to Thingiverse that the model be removed.  Thingiverse complied, but eventually public outcry convinced Schwanitz to dedicate his design to the public domain and retract the takedown request.
Weinberg continues in his whitepaper to describe the difference between useful and creative objects, licensable and non-licensable designs. He concludes that online communities will have a great amount of influence on how copyright policy is enacted.
Until there is better legal clarity, cultural clarity is the best way to protect the development of 3D printing.
Read the full whitepaper called What’s the Deal with Copyright and 3D Printing?.