In the last decade, 3D printing technology has drastically evolved. To 3D print an object, you’ll need a digital design, such as a 3D printer file, which is usually in an STL format, and a 3D printer. The rapid evolution of these printers faces new copyright infringement challenges, sometimes leaving users needing clarification on what is legally accurate to 3D print.
It can be illegal to 3D print copyrighted material unless you have the author’s permission. Downloading or sharing protected 3D printing files and 3D printing replicas of copyrighted materials can infringe copyright and patent laws.
The rest of the article will discuss the main legal facts you need to know concerning the 3D printing of copyrighted materials, the consequences of breaching copyright laws when 3D printing, and some advice on how to 3D print safely.
3D Printing and Copyrighted Materials: The Legal Facts You Need To Know
Before deciding what to 3D print, you should remember that 3D designs, like other materials, works, and creations, might be protected under Intellectual Property (IP) laws. Here are some legal facts you need to know.
What Are Copyrighted Materials?
Copyrighted materials are original pieces of work belonging to known authors who reserve the right to control the use and distribution of their designs. These materials are subject to copyright laws (providing the authors with the exclusive rights of reproduction and customization), patent laws (providing legal protection to inventions), and other materials.
Which Rules Apply to 3D Printing of Copyrighted Materials?
Copyright and Patent laws include, among others, the protection of 3D object files and original objects’ exterior designs. You cannot 3D print an object using a copyrighted design file. In addition, you cannot create a 3D file to copy the design of another author’s creation.
Title 17 of the US Code addresses copyright infringement. It reserves the copyright only to the original authors, who can decide on their works’ reproduction and distribution. In the 3D printing context, the actions below infringe copyright law:
- 3D printing a replica of copyrighted material through 3D scanning or other forms.
- Unauthorized downloading or uploading of copyrighted 3D print files.
- Unauthorized sharing of copyrighted 3D print files.
- Unauthorized selling of copyrighted 3D print files or their 3D print product.
If an author or manufacturer patents a material, the law recognizes it as an invention. Trying to 3D print its replicas or objects that use the same patented design would infringe Section 271 of Title 35 of the US Code.
However, the patent holder must prove that the above actions directly infringe the patent and that the accused party intended to infringe the patent.
US Digital Millennium Copyright Act
Another applicable law that regulates, among others, the 3D printing of copyrighted materials in the US is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It recognizes the right of the 3D printing files’ authors to ask for the takedown of their work from websites that exploit their copyrighted materials.
What Happens if Your 3D Printing Infringes Copyright Laws?
3D printing copyrighted materials can result in criminal and civil penalties, which vary depending on the damage caused. In most cases, the 3D printing of copyrighted material for personal use is less of a concern than printing with the intent to sell the objects of the infringement.
Most authors might refrain from bringing claims to court if someone wrongfully exploited their work for non-commercial purposes only. In these cases, they would have a hard time claiming monetary damages.
How To 3D Print Safely?
If you want to start 3D printing on safe grounds, the sections below will provide a list of rules to avoid possible infringements.
Print Your Own Creations
The most straightforward way not to infringe copyright laws is to create your 3D files from scratch, considered original material.
Remember that not only should the 3D printer file you create be authentic, but the final product should not be a recreation of a copyrighted object or a patented product. For instance, if you create your file to 3D print a model that looks identical to the work created by another designer, you still infringe copyright law.
Print Using Shared Files In the Public Domain
Free files like those on Thingiverse may be protected via various laws. However, when printing for personal use, you can use the free, shared files on Thingiverse without explicit permission from the creator.
If you plan to sell a design or 3D prints of another person’s design, you must have permission from the creator.
Print Copyrighted Materials With the Author’s Permission
If you are 3D printing copyrighted material and have specific permission from its author, you are not infringing any law. Various websites on the internet make available copyrighted files for 3D printing, associated with an authorization that is usually called a license.
Read through the license before you start 3D printing. Some licenses, known as non-commercial licenses, may allow 3D printing for personal use but not for sale and distribution.
Print Objects Categorized As “Useful Articles”
“Useful articles” refers to purely functional items that the copyright law does not protect. You can freely 3D print objects for the sole purpose of their function. For instance, the fact that a manufacturer produces chairs does not prohibit you from 3D printing a chair.
However, these articles’ artistic aspects, such as the aesthetic design, are under copyright. For example, you can 3D print a chair but cannot copy another manufacturer’s chair’s artistic or aesthetic features.
Print Materials Which Copyright Protection Has Expired
Copyrights expire. According to Section 302 of Title 17 of the US Code, copyright lasts during the author’s lifetime and 70 years after the author’s death. After this period, you can reproduce a design with your 3D printer without legal consequences.
You can check whether a work is copyright-protected by visiting the US Copyright Office’s Public Copyright Catalog.
3D printing of copyrighted materials without the owner’s authorization usually results in violations of copyright law. Infringements may involve illegally exploiting digital design files, which are also known as 3D files, or 3D printing replicas of protected physical designs.
In both cases, this may lead to criminal and civil liabilities.
To avoid breaching copyright laws, ensure your digital designs are authentic and you read through the license to 3D print some other author’s material. Remember that the aesthetic design of copyrighted material, however standard, is protected.