A Legal Guide To Licensing Your 3D Printed Files

3D Printing & Imaging
A Legal Guide To Licensing Your 3D Printed Files


Michael Weinberg and his team over at Public Knowledge, have been working hard to keep the internet and other emerging technologies like 3D printing from being overly restricted and closed to citizens of the world. Now Michael and his team have created a whitepaper to help all of us know what parts of our work are licensable and how to best go about choosing a license to protect those pieces.

The overview:

1. Figure out which elements of your object or object file are eligible for copyright protection

2. Understand what copyright does — and does not — allow you to control

3. Choose your license

The 20-page whitepaper goes into deeper detail on each step, and includes an explanation of why this is an important discussion for the burgeoning 3D printing movement.

Michael writes:

Licensing 3D Printed Stuff is the End, not the Beginning

Open source software and the Creative Commons movement have changed the world in countless ways, mostly for the better. One such change has been to make all of us much more aware of the importance of licenses in spreading ideas and creativity, and making the fruits of these ideas and creativity available to others However, they have also created a bit of a blind spot around licensing. Many of us have been trained to begin thinking about licensing by weighing the merits of different licenses, and to simply assume that the thing we are licensing is protected by some sort of intellectual property right in the first place.

3D printing begins to show the limitations of those assumptions. Licensing is so important for code, photographs, and blog posts because they are the types of things eligible for copyright protection, and things that are eligible for copyright protection are automatically protected by copyright. But many of the things coming out of a 3D printer are not eligible for copyright protection, and therefore are not automatically protected by copyright (or patent or anything else). In these cases without an intellectual property right involved, there is nothing to actually license.

In the context of 3D printing, it is important to remember that there is a step before “choose your license.” That step is “understand if you have anything to license.” This can be complicated, but it is absolutely necessary. If you do not really understand what you can control, it is all but impossible to realistically choose a license that will meet your expectations.

If your object does not have any intellectual property protections, everything becomes quite easy – the license you choose doesn’t matter. Without some sort of intellectual property, there will be no way to enforce your license.

If only parts of your object are protected by intellectual property, it is critical to understand what type of behavior is – and is not – controlled by the license you ultimately settle upon. You cannot simply assume that because part of your object is protected, your license applies to all of it.

This analysis may be further complicated by the fact that copyright may very well tread an object and a file that represents that object as two different things. This feels very different from code or photographs. For all practical copyright purposes, code and the file that contains the code is the same thing. In contrast, copyright may very well protect parts of a file for an object, while having nothing to do with the object itself. It is hard to pick a good 3D printing license if you do not fully understand the impact of that distinction.

There are some good rules of thumb that you can work with. Purely decorative objects will probably be protected by copyright, and the licensing will work similarly to code and photographs. But as functionality gets built into those objects, the protections start to slip.

Ultimately, the fact that copyright does not protect everything connected to 3D printing is a good thing. Many of the open source software and Creative Commons licenses were designed to counteract the fact that code and photographs are locked down by copyright by default. A large number of objects in the 3D printing world are born free, available for anyone to build upon, improve, or remix.

But understanding where the lines are is still important. Any discussion about 3D printing licensing that begins by assuming that everything is protected by copyright is likely to disappoint.

In order to make this process easier, today we are putting out a new whitepaper called Licensing Your 3D Printed Stuff. Instead of discussing the pros and cons of specific licenses, the paper is designed to help non-lawyers understand what is available to be licensed in the first place. So check it out, and let us know if it is any help.

You can download and view Michael’s full white paper from Public Knowledge here (PDF).

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Matt is a community organizer and founder of 3DPPVD, Ocean State Maker Mill, and HackPittsburgh. He is Make's digital fabrication and reviews editor.

View more articles by Matt Stultz


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