The thief in the 3D printing world may not be who you think

The world of 3D printing designers was set abuzz recently, when popular designer Asher Nahmias pulled his work from a well-known online store in protest after Stratasys, one of the biggest 3D printer manufacturers, improperly used one of his designs.

The incident – not the first and surely not the last – represented a curious reversal of sorts. Often, discussions about copyright or patent infringement related to 3D printing revolve around the idea of individuals stealing designs from corporations.

In this scenario, it was the reverse, highlighting just how much confusion there is around rights in 3D printing and how much work needs to be done to figure out how best to protect against improper use.

"With all the things this technology is capable of delivering in terms of improving designs and enhancing sustainability and delivering better personalized medical treatment, there are also a lot of unintended consequences," said Avi Reichental, president and CEO of 3D Systems, a 3D printer maker that itself has also been accused of improperly using Nahmias' designs. "Piracy and patent infringement and copyright infringement are going to be part and parcel of the unintended consequences powered by the same technology that can do so much good."

Form over function

Most of the legal issues around 3D printing aren't that different than those around artwork, photography, manufacturing or digital music, said Michael Weinberg, a vice president at Public Knowledge and an attorney who has written two books about intellectual property and 3D printing. For instance, copyright automatically protects purely decorative objects, like sculptures, whether they are created by hand with clay or with a 3D printer.

"If you're going to use something protected by copyright, you need permission," Weinberg said. This is where the 3D printer manufacturers crossed the line in Nahmias' eyes. Nahmias, who declined to be interviewed for this story, protected his designs with a Creative Commons license that barred downloaders from using them in a commercial manner and required users to attribute the design to him.

But Stratasys printed one of Nahmias' designs and included it in its booth at a trade show.

"Even if you bought any of my paid design files you are NOT allowed to use it for commercial displays to showcase your products as 3D systems & Stratasys did without asking my permission nor placing attribution to designer - as per Creative Commons - Attribution - NON Commercial License," Nahmais, better known as Dizingof online, wrote on a recent discussion about the incident.

He also posted an email exchange he said he had with Dan Yalon, executive vice president for business development and strategic marketing for Stratasys, in which Yalon says the company will be sure to ask for permission and give attribution in the future. In the email Yalon also agreed to donate a sum of money to a charity to make up for it, although Nahmias, via Twitter, said he's not sure if Stratasys has done so. Stratasys did not reply to repeated requests for an interview.

Nahmias also discovered that one of his designs was used in a Toys R Us store in Hong Kong that held an event in collaboration with 3D Systems to promote 3D printing. "It wasn't our event," Reichental said. "It was a third party event, and they downloaded the design, and used it in conjunction with us."

"In this case no damage was done in the sense that nobody benefited of profited from it," he said.

However, that comment demonstrates the current disconnect in the community.

Nahmias appears to believe that the companies do benefit by displaying his designs at events that are ultimately surely organized to help sell their products. "These corporations including Makerbot and let's not play naive here - are in it for the MONEY," he wrote in the comments after a blog post about the Stratasys incident.

Ultimately, Dizingof himself has the potential to profit from the incidents.

Designers that find people are using their work without permission have a couple of options. The designer can first contact the offender and ask them to stop using their work, as Nahmias did, or ask to talk about a deal. "People are often best served by talking before litigating," Weinberg said.

However, a designer could also file a lawsuit. "It's certainly an option," he said. If the designer can prove wilful infringement, the court may award as much as $150,000 per work.

Weinberg hasn't heard of a designer filing suit for infringement of a 3D design. He has seen them taking on another tactic though.

"I've seen more designers publically shaming companies," he said. Designers like Nahmias, who is a well-known figure in the 3D printing world, are taking to Twitter each time a violation occurs. Todd Blatt is another 3D designer who has been tweeting when he sees objects on display at tradeshows without proper attribution.

Because the 3D printing world is relatively small, these incidents might be enough to set the industry on the right track, Weinberg said.

Function before form

A different set of laws covers objects that have a useful purpose, as opposed to purely decorative objects. Unlike artwork, which is automatically protected by copyright, useful objects are only covered by patents if the creator files for one and is awarded one. Even then, a patent typically lasts only 20 years.

"What you have is a situation where people are stepping away from their computer screens and looking around the world and realizing that the world is full of things that are not wrapped up in permissions. Although we've been trained that everything has an IP owner, people are waking up to the fact that that's not true for the vast majority of things in the real world," Weinberg said.

Still, there could be some grey areas. If someone creates a digital file, essentially a virtual representation, of a useful object, like a screw, that file could be protected by copyright. "If you conclude that the file is protected in part by copyright, what kind of control would copyright in a file of a screw give you over the reproduction of screws in real life?" he wonders.

These types of questions might get presented to courts as more people try to replicate objects using 3D printing.

Available tools

Technology, awareness and new policies can all help prevent unauthorized duplication in 3D printing.

"DRM techniques can be easily applied to 3D printing files," Reichental said. The idea is that the creator can enable whoever downloads the file to print an authorized number of products and that's it.

3D Systems offers DRM to designers who post their creations on Cubify, 3D Systems' online marketplace. "My sense is you'll see more and more of that happening," he said.

Within Cubify, 3D Systems has a policy that it will remove unauthorized items that are uploaded for sale and block the seller from uploading additional files. The company is also investigating technologies that might be able to recognize unauthorized files so that the company might be able to take a more proactive stance, he said.

Beyond technology, he thinks that education will be key. Starting at the elementary school level, 3D Systems thinks there should be a formal curriculum that keeps pace with developments in 3D printing so that people learn at a young age about intellectual property.

Lauren Bricker, who teaches a 3D printing class at Seattle's Lakeside School (Bill Gates and Paul Allen are among the school's alums), instructs her students to think about intellectual property implications. "It's just like teaching students about how plagiarism is wrong in writing a paper, writing a piece of software, or even in the world of art. This area is no different but it's so 'new' people haven't really had a chance to think about it," she said.

To avoid the situations that Nahmais has faced, it's clear also that corporations need to do a better job of implementing internal rules around using 3D printers.

Weinberg thinks it's unlikely that Stratasys, for instance, overtly decided to infringe Nahmais' copyright. "What's far more likely is the company didn't take the time to think about what they were doing or the person who was doing it either didn't understand what a Creative Commons license was or misinterpreted it," he said.

Still, it is surprising that such a large company would make such an oversight, he said. "It makes it more surprising than if some person on the corner were doing it," he said. Large companies often have policies, for instance, that require workers to have PowerPoint decks approved by corporate communications or legal departments. A similar type of process could easily govern the use of designs displayed at trade shows or other public events.

"But then again, it's a new world for them too. They've been in the business for over 20 years and probably most of those years the world of 3D printing designers was relatively small," Weinberg said. Then MakerBot launched Thingiverse, its online marketplace, and the world of 3D designers expanded. Stratasys acquired MakerBot last month.

For perspective, Weinberg notes that similar incidents of companies inappropriately taking content from individuals aren't uncommon. "Every couple of months an advertising company is taking a picture from Flickr and using it in a campaign," he said. The "irony is rich" in such scenarios where companies have robust IP protection programs themselves, he noted.

Since the 3D printing market is just starting to blossom, related intellectual property issues won't be solved overnight.

"This technology is moving at exponential speed and it's only going to exacerbate the gaps that we have between what the technology can do and what human behavior wants to do and what our social and legislative infrastructure is capable of comprehending today," Reichental said.

UPDATE (July 19, 2013): After this story posted, Nahmias, via Twitter, pointed to an online comment where 3D Systems’ chief strategy officer Ping Fu says that she in fact printed his model that went on display in the Toys R Us store. That seems to contradict 3D Systems’ CEO, who blamed a partner for downloading and using the design.

In addition, also via Twitter, Nahmias said that he called the charity Yad-Sarah that Stratasys offered to contribute to and asked if a donation had been made from Stratasys or Objet, the name of a company Stratasys merged with last year. He said the charity reported it hadn’t received such a donation.

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