Makers Wanted: Help Keep 3D Printers Unlocked

3D Printing & Imaging Digital Fabrication Maker News
Makers Wanted: Help Keep 3D Printers Unlocked

Every three years, the US Copyright Office gets to make it legal to break Digital Rights Management (DRM, also known as digital locks) in certain situations. The default rule in the United States is that breaking digital locks on copyright-protected works is illegal, so the Copyright Office process is designed to create exemptions for groups with good reasons to break those digital locks.

In the past, these groups have included media studies professors who want to show video clips in class, people who want to jailbreak cell phones, visually impaired users who need speech-to-text technology to access ebooks, and — importantly for this blog post — people who want to use the printing material of their choice in 3D printers.

The Copyright Office can only grant these exemptions for three years, so every three years everyone needs to go back and ask for the exemptions to be renewed. The last exemptions were granted in 2017, so now that it is 2020, we need to renew the request.

As an open source hardware advocate and creator of the 2017 petition for the original unlocking 3D printer exemption, I’m helping lead this, and need your help.

Renew and . . . Expand?

The text of the 2017 exemption for 3D printers was pretty good. It defined the exemption as being for:

“Computer programs that operate 3D printers that employ microchip-reliant technological measures to limit the use of feedstock, when circumvention is accomplished solely for the purpose of using alternative feedstock and not for the purpose of accessing design software, design files, or proprietary data.”

Therefore, the first thing we will be doing in 2020 is asking for this exemption to be renewed.

However, you may notice that the exemption does have a caveat:

. . . that employ microchip-reliant technological measures . . .

This language was proposed with an eye towards the kind of chip-based verification measures 2D printers use for ink and some 3D printers use for filament.

The question this time around is if there are technologies used to limit the source of 3D printing material that do not fall within that definition. In other words, are there technologies that do not rely on microchips to verify the source of the printing material? If there are, we can use them as evidence for eliminating the caveat. If there are not, we can just ask for a renewal of the existing rule.

If you know of a 3D printer that 1.) requires you to purchase printing material (filament, powder, resin, etc.) from the printer manufacturer (or approved vendor) AND 2.) uses something besides a microchip to verify the source of the material, let me know! Email me at or dm me on twitter @mweinberg2D. Feel free to send me this information anonymously if you prefer. Please let me know soon, because the deadline to alert the Copyright Office is the end of July.

[Photo: John Abella CC BY 2.0]

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Michael Weinberg

In his spare time, Michael is the President of the Board of the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) and the General Counsel of Shapeways. Despite that, nothing in this article is OSHWA’s or Shapeways’ fault, and it certainly isn’t legal advice. You can find Michael online @MWeinberg2D and at

View more articles by Michael Weinberg


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