Tag Archives: Public Knowledge

Will 3D Scanners Usher in a New Era of Copyright Infringement?

Legal Expert Michael Weinberg Explores the Implications of More Accessible and Inexpensive 3D Scanners

This is a guest post by Michael Weinberg, whose bio is at the end of the article.

Q: Will 3D Scanners Usher in a New Era of Copyright Infringement?

A: No.

Tied into our current 3D printing boom is a second, equally interesting one: an explosion of accessible 3D scanners.  As you may be able to guess from the name, 3D scanners can take physical objects and turn them into digital files.  Once you have digitized an object you can modify it, share it over the internet, and/or print it out with a 3D printer.

Like 3D printers, 3D scanners are not new technology.  Companies have been making expensive, high quality scanners for years.  These scanners could be used to quickly create digital replicas of things like buildingsentire neighborhoods, or even fossilized whale bones that are accurate down to the centimeter (or millimeter).  But, also like 3D printers, recent years have started to see low cost, pretty-good scanners enter the market.

MakerBot Digitizer 3D Scanner Bre Pettis

There huge variety in these scanners.  Microsoft’s Kinect has been hacked and turned into a 3D scanner.  123D Catch from Autodesk can turn a series of regular, 2D photographs into a 3D model.   Makerbot has released their own 3D scanner (well, sort of their second 3D scanner), and Kickstarter is chock-a-block full of handheld 3D scannersdesktop 3D scanners, and dongles that turn your phone or tablet into a 3D scanner.  Back in 2011 we even did a podcast interview with the inventor of Trimensional, an iPhone app that used light from the iPhone’s own screen to create a 3D model.

All of which is to say that pretty soon anyone who wants access to a reasonably high quality 3D scanner will have one. In fact, anyone with a smart phone in their pocket will have one whether they want it or not.

3D Scanning 3D Printing

A Crisitunity?

Most people will see this as an exciting opportunity.  Imagine if on your next vacation, instead of just taking a picture of yourself next to the Elgin Marbles you scan them so you can print them out at home.  Or going to a botanical garden, scanning a bouquet worth of flowers, and mixing them into a 3D printed statue for your sweetheart.  Being able to capture the world in 3D will present us all with incredible opportunities.

Of course, some people will see this new technology as a crisis.  They will worry that being able to copy objects means being able to copy objects without permission.  And that could mean infringing on copyright (of course in many cases the objects being copied will not actually be protected by copyright, but let’s set that aside right over here for now).  They will conclude that this type of technology is just too dangerous to be freely available, and insist on some combination of digital and legal restrictions that make it much less useful and much easier to control.

A Dumb Response

This type of response is, in a word, dumb.  Yes, it is true that 3D scanners can copy physical objects.  And it is true that some of those physical objects will be protected by copyright (or patent).  And, furthermore, it is true that some of those protected objects will be copied without permission, therefore infringing on their respective copyrights and patents.

But that alone is not enough to build a case to restrict them.  After all, you can say pretty much the same thing about digital 2D cameras.  Digital cameras make copies of all sorts of copyright-protected things every day.  Many of those copies are made without permission.  And, at least on some level, that is a problem.

But no one would suggest that the correct response to that problem is to build limitations into digital cameras.  Or hold digital camera manufacturers responsible for copyright infringement.  There is no reason to treat 3D scanners any differently.

So enjoy those 3D scanners.  Use them responsibly.  Or at least as responsibly as you use your 2D camera.  And if someone starts freaking out about how 3D scanners will somehow mean the end of intellectual property as we know it, tell them to take a deep breath.  Sit them down.  Scan their face.  Turn it into a 3D printed mug and fill that mug with whatever liquid you think will best help them to relax.

About the author: Michael Weinberg is a Vice President at Public Knowledge, a public interest advocacy group focused on digital issues based in Washington, DC. 

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Video: How 3D Printing Will Change the World and Industry Interviews

PBS Video 3D Printing

In the PBS video below, the 3D printing industry is profiled.

3D Printing is heralded as a revolutionary and disruptive technology, but how will these printers truly affect our society? Beyond an initial novelty, 3D Printing could have a game-changing impact on consumer culture, copyright and patent law, and even the very concept of scarcity on which our economy is based. From at-home repairs to new businesses, from medical to ecological developments, 3D Printing has an undeniably wide range of possibilities which could profoundly change our world.

The video includes interviews with:

  • Sam Cervantes from Solidoodle on innovation
  • Carine Carmy from Shapeways on supply chain disruption
  • Michael Weinberg from Public Knowledge on copyright and IP
  • Joseph Flaherty from Wired.com on bioprinting and more

Watch the full video below.

Copyright Law, DMCA, and 3D Printing: A Detailed Whitepaper

Copyright and 3D Printing

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.

Penrose Triangle 3D Printing

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:

Inspired by Ulrich Schwanitz’s ‘challenge’
about the “Impossible Penrose Triangle”
I thought I’d give it a try.
Looks pretty neat.

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. [16] 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?.