Sharing content among the 3D printing industry through Creative Commons is a widespread practice, but does doing so really protect creators from copyright infringement and attribution issues?

Some of our readers may not even know what 3D printing is, or understand why it’s a threat to big business and designers alike. 3D printing brings to life the digital designs of industrial designers. A savvy designer creates a product design using their industrial design know-how, and then prints in ‘3D’ using special technology that makes the physical product. You can see why this might be a threat to big business, considering that it will eventually make it easy for anyone to create a product and thus gain a potentially substantial piece of the market share.

For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article discussed how a 3D designer and printer created his own designs for products from the popular Star Wars film released last year. Within weeks, the designer had tons of requests to download his 3D designs, and though he wasn’t earning a profit (he was offering those designs for free) he was making it easier for consumers to find a similar product online and for free. Plus, his doing so potentially violated Lucasfilm’s copyright in its Star Wars characters, since he was creating products based on characters that are within Lucasfilm’s copyright protections. That presents a much larger problem for the company since it could create a potential windfall of copyright litigation based on 3D printing.

What’s more, while there are many high-end, ultra-sophisticated 3D printer models, the market is currently welcoming cheaper and nearly as efficient models to the fold. That means that soon, anyone with knowledge of industrial design and access to a budget-friendly printer will be able to create products they can sell through their own channels.creative-commons

As the industry remains relatively as uncharted territory, the internet is playing a vital role in its development and dissemination of new 3D designs. Why would a 3D printer want to share their work online? For one, it’s a great way to get a name and brand distributed to the masses. If one makes their industrial designs available online, then a vast number of 3D printing enthusiasts will have access to that work. Since attribution is often a key factor when distributing works online (more on that below), then it solves the problem of ensuring that the designer’s name is attached to that specific design. This is usually great – until a designer starts gaining momentum, and realizes they can instead sell your designs for a healthy profit.

So how do most 3D printers and designers distribute these designs to other users? Because of the ease with which one can upload and assign a license to their work, most are turning to Creative Commons, a licensing scheme developed to give users a quick-and-painless way to share their work online. Creative Commons (“CC”) has given copyright owners new tools to license their works by allowing users to assign licenses to third parties that wish to use their work. CC set out to provide free, easy-to-use copyright licenses that provide a simple way to give the public permission to share and use creative works.

According to the website, “CC licenses let you easily change your copyright terms from the default of ‘all rights reserved’ to ‘some rights reserved.’ Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable you to modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs.” Thus, Creative Commons offers users at best a modicum of protection, by creating licenses that one can assign to the work. Below, we’ll explain more about Creative Commons licenses and the way they intersect with 3D printers.

How Does (or Doesn’t) Creative Commons Work for 3D Printing?

CC allows users to assign a license to their work. That license limits what a third party can and cannot do with the work. Though CC claims that the license is revocable, that only applies once you’ve actually revoked it – meaning that whoever got their hands on their work with the former license will still be permitted to use the work accordingly. CC offers its users six types of licenses:

  1. Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives: This is the most restrictive license.  It allows you to use the image in its entirety, with no changes such as cropping, and only for a non-commercial purpose
  2. Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike: with this license, you can make derivatives of the work but you must license the new work under the same CC license as the original.
  3. Attribution Non-commercial: Same as number two above but you are not required to use the same CC license in the new work
  4. Attribution No Derivatives: You may use the works, as is, with no changes.  It can also be used commercially.
  5. Attribution-Share Alike: You may alter the work and use it for a commercial purpose but you must license your new work under the identical terms of the original.
  6. Attribution: This is the most open and flexible creative commons license. You may edit it and use it commercially as long as you provide attribution.

Now, with respect to the 3D printing industry, there are a few issues. For one, how would someone ‘attribute’ a design to the copyright holder? For example, let’s say you’ve designed a faucet, and a 3D printer is using your design through a CC license. Since ‘attribution’ is required by every CC license, then it would follow that the 3D printer that obtained your design through Creative Commons would be responsible for attributing your name on that design. When they print and fashion that faucet in someone’s home, how would they attribute the design to you? Would your name appear on the faucet? If any visitors enter the home and inquire about the faucet, will they say that you’ve designed it? Would other CC users know that your design is frequently used for at-home faucets?

These questions present another important consideration, which is the commercial restriction in most of the CC licenses. If a third party downloads these designs to offer them to clients who are remodeling their homes, they’re in direct violation of CC license parameters. But what if the third party originally used the faucet design for their personal use at home, and then later proceeded to sell the home? Wouldn’t that be considered a ‘commercial’ use?

Additionally, the licenses aren’t truly revocable, since once a third party uses the license they are entitled to its use again and again. That means that, if the faucet designer changed their minds about permitting others to use his designs (maybe he realized he could monetize his design instead of sharing it freely on Creative Commons) then he wouldn’t be able to order any third parties who had previously downloaded his designs from continuing to use it.

Creative Commons has already created problems for designers. Recently, a designer was dismayed to find that her 3D designs – which were protected by a Creative Commons, non-attributable license – had been pirated for use by a products company. The designer was not contacted for permission or paid for the use of her work. Despite having her design registered via Creative Commons, she was faced with a situation in which the only way to recover her lost profits would be to file a lawsuit, something which she really didn’t have the time and resources to do.

So what is there to do? As the industry continues to unfold and develop itself, we suggest being cautious with your 3D printing designs. Rather than sharing your work for the sake of sharing it, consider whether you might go another, more traditional, route to licensing your work.

How Else Can 3D Printers License Their Work?

We’ve previously discussed several ways that artists can license their work, including working with licensing agents, familiarizing themselves with potential customers, and building an active following on social media to get new licensing partners. While a traditional licensing model is more time consuming and costly (since it often requires the presence of lawyers to negotiate the terms of the agreement), it’s definitely the safest way to ensure that you are being paid accordingly for the use of your license.

If you want to share your designs, consider working with a licensing agent – since the industry is still developing, it’s likely that there are plenty of hungry agencies looking for ripe new 3D talent.

However, hiring a lawyer to craft the terms of a licensing agreement isn’t always a possibility, and many 3D printers continue to turn to the internet to be able to share their content across channels.

As licensing and Creative Commons questions continue to pop up for 3D printing professionals, how do you think courts will attempt to regulate the industry?


Nicole Martinez
Nicole Martinez

Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.

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