Four and a half years ago, in the wake of HBO’s decision to send a DMCA notice removing a 3D printed Game of Thrones iPhone dock from the internet, I wrote a short blog post titled HBO, Give People a Way to Buy Your 3D Printed Stuff for the Public Knowledge blog.  Today I get to write a post celebrating the fact that Valve has decided to do just that.

The first post raised a point that was not novel at the time, and has not grown any more novel since: instead of taking down fan art, rightsholders may be better served by allowing fans to spread their enthusiasm by selling their work.  Furthermore, to the extent that fan art requires a license to produce, rightsholders could be well served by granting that license in exchange for part of the proceeds from that sale and information about what types of things are popular in the community.

While the larger point was not novel, 3D printing did bring a slightly different context to its discussion.   Unlike other types of digital-only fan art that can be reproduced for free, 3D printing involves a physical thing that costs money to produce.  That means that 3D printed fan art will involve payment much more often than other types of online fan art.  As a result, rightsholders do not have to introduce monetization into an ecosystem – it is there from the beginning.  That, in turn, makes it much less disruptive to introduce the concept of royalty payments to the community.  (For what it’s worth, a similar “I expect to pay for physical goods” mindset helps guide the development of the open source hardware community and its divergence from traditional open source hardware.)

In my Shapeways welcome post, I mentioned that one of the reasons I was excited to join was Shapeways’ unique position to bring together fans, rightsholders, and 3D printing.  One of the first things I did when I started was to reach out to Heidi Tandy (who is many things, but in this context was part of the team supporting the Organization for Transformative Works).  I asked her for thoughts on creating a program that allowed fans to create new works without exposure to threats of copyright infringement while at the same time avoiding forcing licenses on new works that did not require licenses in the first place.  As would come as no surprise to anyone who has met her, Heidi was incredibly willing to take the time to walk me through my ideas and anxieties, as well as share her insights.

I hope that the structure of the Valve deal helps facilitate licensing between fans and rightsholders when that licensing is necessary, without also creating new norms requiring licenses when none are necessary.  The former is advanced by a prominent notice that the license is available with (what I hope are) human-readable terms. The latter is advanced by making it clear that creators have the right to opt out of the license, and making it easy to do so.  

Valve deserves a great deal of credit for their willingness to support both of these goals, and for their willingness to explore this more generally.  It would have been easy for Valve to refuse to explore this opportunity at all, to make the license terms complicated or secret, or to insist that it be hard or impossible to opt out of the license. They did none of these things, for which they should be commended.

This program is a big step towards finding out what it really means to allow fans to create original physical items under a formal license, instead of shutting it down or benignly neglecting it under opaque conditions.  I’m hoping that there are many more.

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