Today was the last public step in the 3D printing unlocking proceeding (some background here).  Essentially, this is about allowing people who own 3D printers to use whatever their material they want in their printer.  Since some manufacturers use chip-and-software-based verification to lock printers to material coming from them, the entire process was happening as part of the triennial “1201 process,” so named for 17 USC 1201 that authorizes it.

That last step was a public hearing.  On side pro-unlock was Sherwin Siy from Public Knowledge and me from, well, me. I started this process while I was at PK but now that I am at Shapeways was participating in my personal capacity.  On side anti-unlock was a representative from Stratasys.  Stratasys is a large commercial 3D printer manufacturer.  They also own a desktop 3D printing company called Makerbot that you may have heard of.

Rebecca Tushnet already has her always fantastic liveblog/transcript of the proceeding up so I’ll just link to it here.  Some quick thoughts:

  • There were a lot of questions about the copyright-protected work in question and about how the DRM mechanism would actually operate.  Since the petition was (intentionally) written at a fairly high level of abstraction in order to cover all printers, this became a bit complicated.  
  • The Copyright Office seemed interested in exploring distinctions between a consumer/prosumer market and a commercial/industrial market.  This makes a bit of sense since the original petition skewed towards the consumer market.  However, it is hard to articulate a reason why it would be reasonable to grant this exemption for the consumer market and not the industrial market.
  • There was also some discussion about why the underlying copying in question was not an infringement.  This was a bit complicated because I don’t actually believe that there is infringement going on.  However, I do worry that the absence of infringement would not prevent a printer manufacturer from bringing a lawsuit or threatening a lawsuit.  Fortunately, Sherwin was able to talk about both 17 USC 117 and fair use.
  • There were questions about ownership vs. licensing of the software in the machines.  The Copyright Office asked for specific examples of how specific printer manufacturer handle this issue.  I didn’t have specific examples.  It probably would have been better if I had researched the licensing terms of a handful of printers before the hearing.
  • Stratasys/Makerbot essentially restated the concerns that they raised in their opposition filing.  These concerns boil down to things like people making counterfeit objects with sub-standard third party material and users hating Stratasys when third party material makes ugly prints with a Stratasys machine.  The Copyright Office was encouragingly skeptical of this justification for 1201 liability.  As I wrote in my obnoxious reply comments, I share most of those concerns.  It is just that 1201 is not the law that we have to prevent counterfeit 3D printed parts from going into airplanes.  That’s why we have product liability law. And contracts.  And trademark.  
  • In defending their interest in using DRM to exclude third party filament, Stratasys made it pretty clear (to me at least) that they have been seriously considering adding verification chips to Makerbots.

  • Stratasys was rolling deep.  In addition to the person they had testifying, they had at least 4 lawyers sitting in the back.  Those lawyers seemed perfectly nice, but their presence pretty much put to bed any ideas I had that a 3D printer company would never bring a 1201 action against someone who decided to use an unapproved material. 

What happens now?  Assuming the Copyright Office doesn’t have any followup questions, once the hearings are done tomorrow they start deciding how to handle all 27 exemption proposals.  They come up with recommendations (at least in theory in consultation with NTIA - it was encouraging to see a representative from NTIA asking questions today) and give them to the Librarian of Congress.  He then considers the recommendations and decides how to handle each request.  When will that happen?  Who knows?  Maybe this fall?

Will this exemption be granted?  I have no idea. The Copyright Office felt less hostile to the idea than usual and asked good questions probing how the Stratasys concerns connected to copyright.  But they also seemed concerned that Sherwin and I didn’t have a detailed technical analysis of every possible DRM mechanism that could be used in a 3D printer.  So we’ll see.

Oh, and if you want to watch a video of the hearing you are out of luck. The Copyright Office doesn’t know how to record things on video. At some point they will release a transcript. Until then Professor Tushnet’s blog is the closest you are going to get (and it is pretty damn close).

Today the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is launching a challenge initiative to help improve prosthetics and assistive technologies.  As part of the Innovation Creation Series Challenge, the VA is pushing for rapid innovation around the development of personalized technologies to improve care and quality of life for Veterans.  Of course, when you hear personalization and innovation you know 3D printing can’t be far behind.

The goal of the initiative is to use 3D printing and distributed creation to contribute to an open ecosystem of prosthetics and other assistive technologies.  Think of an entire universe of e-nable type devices and prosthetics for people with disabilities and  you can begin to imagine why this is a big deal.

The VA has rolled out a list of specific challenges to kickstart the initiative:

  • Develop novel upper and lower extremity devices at the end of the prothesis for daily use.
  • Create a medication pill box that allows the flexibility to hold medications that need to be taken up to 8 times a day with a reminder system for each time medication needs to be taken.
  • Create a device that can dampen tremor when a Veteran is performing fine motor tasks.
  • Design a device to remotely change the speed and grip strength of a prosthetic device for our Veterans with upper extremity injuries.
  • Create a way to reassign motions and buttons on the Nintendo Wii controller to allow for alternative methods of access to games for Veterans with physical disabilities.

The entire challenge is running on an accelerated timeline designed to turn ideas into reality as quickly as possible.  After launching today, collaborators and participants will work together to create, refine, and improve designs through May, June, and July.  The challenge ends with a two-day makeathon on July 28th and 29th at the Hunter Holmes VA Medical Center in Richmond, VA.

These types of challenges help showcase the best of 3D printing’s potential to make the world a better place.  If you want to get involved, make sure to head over to the challenge website.  And if you do get involved, tweet at me to let me know how it goes!

This post originally appeared on the shapeways blog.

May 1 marked (what is probably) the final written phase of the Copyright Office’s 1201 proceeding, a proceeding which includes the petition to allow users to “unlock” their 3D printer in order to print in materials not approved by the printer manufacture.  The original petition is available here, and the original comment in support from while I was at Public Knowledge is available here. After responses in opposition from the 3D printer company Stratasys and the trade group the Intellectual Property Owners Association, the final written round was an opportunity for supporters of the exemption to respond to the opposition. My response is here, and Public Knowledge’s response (written by Sherwin and Raza) is here.

PK’s response is better than mine, challenging some of the procedural and legal assertions made by opponents and highlighting why people advocating for the exemption should not have the burden of explaining every possible way someone might want to circumvent any possible technical protection measure.  This is important because such a requirement would essentially mean that only people with access to fairly sophisticated engineering resources could apply for an exemption.  PK argues (correctly, of course) that the proper reading of the requirement is that proponents of an exemption simply describe a category of works.  This significantly lowers the burden for average people who might want to apply for an exemption without having a dual law and engineering degree.

My response was more straightforward and focused mostly on Stratasys’ opposition (in my defense, the IPO’s opposition comments were brief and pretty much every point it made was also found in the Stratasys opposition).  The theme of my response is summed up fairly well in its introduction:

In defending the practice of leveraging copyright law to limit customer choice in 3D printer material, opponents argue that limiting customer choice helps support development of new 3D printing material.  Opponents argue that limiting consumer choice helps support servicing and maintaining printers. Opponents argue that limiting consumer choice helps keep printer prices down. Opponents argue that limiting consumer choice helps with print precision.  Opponents argue that limiting consumer choice helps to monitor the status of prints and of printing materials.  Opponents argue that limiting consumer choice helps avoid fire hazards and leads to an increase in positive health outcomes.

I find many of these claims suspect.  However, they do not matter. None of them have anything to do with copyright law. As such, for the purposes of this proceeding, I do not question any of these claims.

Stratasys spent over 30 pages of legal argument explaining how preventing consumer choice in 3D printing materials might make Stratasys’ machines work worse and undermine Stratasys’ ability to use profits from materials sales to support innovation in machines and materials.  3D printers and 3D printer materials are beyond the scope of copyright so, even if these claims are true, they are irrelevant to the Copyright Office proceeding. In fact, they pretty much highlight one of the problems created by this process in the first place: it gives manufacturers of goods that have little to nothing to do with copyright industries a pretext to try and control goods after sale.  Essentially they are trying to use the provision of the law as a way to undermine the fact that their customers actually own the printers the customers purchase.

Stratasys also commissioned a 15 page study about how preventing consumers from using other sources of 3D printing material actually helps consumers.  I didn’t spend very much time addressing that point.  Suffice to say that there isn’t anything special about 3D printing in regard to this sort of cost recovery, so if the report is true consumers really should be clamoring for the elimination of all sorts of third party vendors in all sorts of industries.

Now that the written comment rounds are over, we move onto the hearing phase later on this month.  If you are in LA or DC you can come and see them in person.

Finally, I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who weighed in both through the right to repair site and as individuals through the Copyright Office site.  This kind of mass public participation is critical to proving to the Copyright Office that this is more than some theoretical problem conjured up by some pesky advocates.

Last week Shapeways announced a partnership with the personal drone company DJI (maker of the Phantom line of drones).  The first part of the partnership is a curated shop of DJI-approved accessories for Phantom drones.  This partnership is exciting on its face (drones + 3D printing is always a fun combination), and it is also interesting as a potentially new kind of model for how existing brands can embrace 3D printing.

Thus far there have essentially been two major ways for companies to embrace 3D printing  (not including “we used 3D printing to make this complex thing”-type announcements, which are also cool but a somewhat different animal).  The first, and earliest, was essentially the “here are some files” model.  This was the model used by Nokia/Microsoft when they released design files that allowed people to create their own shells for the Lumia 820 phone.  It was similarly used when the synth company Teenage Engineering released design files so customers could print out their own replacement sliders and knobs for the OP-1 synthesizer.  This first model essentially releases some internal files into the wild and invites people to use (and potentially modify) them as they see fit.  Generally speaking the functional parts represented by the files aren’t protected by copyright and the release is more about getting “good” files for fans to work with into the wild than any sort of IP license.

The second way is still best exemplified by the Shapeways/Hasbro brony deal.  When confronted with a vibrant and passionate community of My Little Pony superfans making their own 3D printable fan art, Hasbro did not respond with lawsuits shutting everything down.  Instead, Hasbro decided to embrace the community and, through a partnership with Shapeways, give some of those fan artists a way to license their creations and sell them without fear of an infringement lawsuit.  Unlike the first model, Hasbro didn’t provide any digital files.  Instead, they simply decided to embrace a passionate fan community and give it a license instead of burying it with copyright infringement lawsuits.

The DJI deal may begin to exemplify a third approach.  DJI did not release 3D files to its users.  Similarly, because they are by and large functional objects outside the scope of copyright, DJI doesn’t necessarily have a powerful copyright threat to use against fan-created Phantom accessories (not that a copyright threat always needs a clear basis in law to intimidate a community…).  Instead, in this instance we have a community that is largely not of DJI’s creation and largely outside of its legal control.  

DJI could have responded to such a community in a number of different ways, from ignoring its existence to a campaign of hostility and harassment.  However, in this case DJI has decided to embrace it and (at least to a degree) endorse it.  When faced with a group of superfans spending their time testing and developing new accessories for its drones, DJI knew a good thing when they saw it and invited them in.  By legitimizing and embracing this community DJI is signaling to its customers that it wants to meet them where they are.  It also, not incidentally, gets some great (practically-free) R&D to learn what its most passionate users really want.

It is unlikely that any of these approaches is “best,” and it is unclear if all of them will be viable in the long term.  Furthermore, it is unlikely that they will remain the only approaches that existing brands use to 3D printing.  For now it is enough to note that each of them are interesting and can work, and to be encouraged that some brands are seeing 3D printing as an ally instead of an interloper.

While the IP saga of Left Shark lives on, at this point I think we have enough distance to try and determine if there are any larger lessons to be learned from this entire enterprise.  From where we stand today I think it is safe to say that there is at least one.

As I’ve said more than once, one of the biggest issues connected to IP and 3D printing will simply be the process of people figuring out that not everything coming out of a 3D printer is protected by copyright.  This is a huge shift from the past 15+ years, where the thing that most non-lawyers thought they needed to know about IP was “everything on your computer screen is protected by copyright.”  The idea that just because someone (or some brand) is associated with an object doesn’t always give them the right to control that object flies in the face of that “folk copyright” and will take years to explain to people.

Sometimes neither side in a dispute will fully understand this concept.  Other times one side will and the other won’t, and hijinks will ensue.  But it may be that the real legacy of Left Shark will be to illustrate what happens when large purported rightsholders try and bluff their way through a conflict.

Although there are plenty of reasons to be annoyed at Katy Perry because of her attempts to control Left Shark, the one that seemed to annoy the most people was that she was trying to assert rights she simply did not have.  Given the content (and missing content) of the letter, it seems at least likely that her lawyers understood that they did not actually have the right to demand the takedown of Left Shark but sent a scary letter anyway.

That gives rise to the lesson of Left Shark - however mad people get when a rightsholder pulls something beloved down from the internet, they get even angrier when someone pretending to be a rightsholder pulls something beloved down from the internet.  In other words, there are real costs to overplaying your hand and trying to control objects, files, and ideas outside of your legal control.  There are people willing to push back.

It is way too early in the history of widespread access to 3D printing to know if this type of reaction is a one-off or the beginning of a trend.  And I don’t know if we will be richer or poorer as a people if “to left shark” evolves into a verb for overplaying your IP hand in the world of 3D printing.  So for now all that needs to be said is that there is a lesson to be learned here and that I hope that rightsholders are paying attention.