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Are Free 3D Printables Copyrighted?

While we know that different forms of art and creativity are protected by copyright and intellectual property laws, you need to know that there is an ambiguity regarding free printables.

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3D printing is a relatively new artistic and creative realm that is yet to be fully tapped into, unlike other art forms. While we know that different forms of art and creativity are protected by copyright and intellectual property laws, you need to know that there is an ambiguity regarding free printables for 3D printers because of how relatively new it is. So, are free 3D printables copyrighted?

Copyright laws do not protect free 3D printables because they are free means that they are already part of the public domain. This is similar to stock images and other similar works that were made to be free for the public to use. As such, free printables are not copyright-protected.

The good news for you is that if you found a good printable file made to be free by the designer or author himself, it is perfectly fine for you to print it. However, there is a caveat here as not all free things can be used without infringing on the owner’s intellectual property rights. That’s why we have to look at some of the legal ramifications regarding printables.

What are the copyright laws regarding creative works like printables?

When it comes to creative works of art, you need to know plenty of different things regarding your limits and whether you can use such creative works. These copyright laws that protect the intellectual property rights of the owner and designer of certain artistic works have always been around for as long as we know.

However, while these copyright laws have always protected paintings, statues, and inventions, one of the many gray areas that we have today is technology and the internet. There have been plenty of developments in this area ever since the first copyright laws were put in effect several hundreds of years ago.

Of course, this includes printables, which are files that you can use for your 3D printer so that the printer itself will print and reproduce it. You need to know about printables because anyone can get hold of these files and then use their 3D printers to produce the design or invention that can be printed. 

While the internet was never something that our ancestors dreamed of when it came to the copyright laws that are still in effect today, you should know that such laws still apply in relation to printables. So, in that regard, let’s look at some of the laws that cover 

The copyright laws in the US have been around since 1790 and has been amended several times to make sure that it fits the changing times. The law protects the value of any creative work or invention so that the designers or artists have exclusive legal rights to them. Among these rights include the following:

  • Selling or making copies of the work
  • Creating derivatives of the work
  • Displaying the work for people to see in the public

Take note that there is nothing in the law that will protect a design or idea that is still in the person’s mind. As such, if someone could make the same design a reality before you did, then the laws will protect him even if you were the first to think of the design. Such laws also cover 3D printables because they are considered concrete in the sense that they are already in some form, which is the file that can be used to make the printable a reality.

So, the basic rule is that once the file has been designed, then it is up to the owner to do what he wants to do with it, such as selling the design or making copies of it. He can also print the printable and then display it for the public to see.

Do these copyright laws cover our free 3D printables?

different 3d printed items

Now that you know the laws that protect printables, what happens if the owner or the designer himself makes the printable free? What if he uploads the printable online so that anyone can use the design and print it? Does that mean that copyright laws no longer protect 3D printables?

In that regard, you have to understand what designs made for the public domain are. When something has been made for the public domain, that means that the designer or artist himself specifically and personally allowed it to be used by the public. A good example here is when a photographer purposely posted online a photo to be used as a stock photo.

When the designer of a printable himself uploads the printable to be used for free by the public, the printable has become part of the public domain and can be used by anyone without infringing on the person’s intellectual property rights. Copyright laws will no longer protect the 3D printables because the designer himself purposely uploaded it to be a free design that people can use.

However, the caveat here is that, while you are free to do what you want to do with a free printable uploaded and reproduced by the designer himself, it has to be the designer or the intellectual property owner who specifically did so.

That means that there are grey areas here. If the designer uploaded the design as a free design, the printable would no longer be protected by copyright laws if he owns the rights to the design of the printable. 

If a person is the one who designed a printable, but he does not own the rights to it (such as when he was commissioned by a third party to design it or if he sold the intellectual rights to another person). This means that the printable is still covered by copyright laws even if the designer of the printable made it for free for the public to use. This means that the one who owns the printable’s rights can demand the file to be taken down.


The important thing you need to know here is that you should be looking at who owns the rights to the printables and not who designed them. The designer could be the same person who owns it, but he could have also sold the rights to it to another person. As such, as long as the one who holds the intellectual rights to the printable was the one who made it for free for the public to use, then it is no longer protected by copyright laws as it has become part of the public domain.

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About Ben

I started 3D printing since 2013 and have learned a lot since then. Because of this I want to share my knowledge of what I have learned in the past years with the community. Currently I own 2 Bambulab X1 Carbon, Prusa SL1S and a Prusa MK3S+. Hope you learn something from my blog after my years of experience in 3D printing.