A Creative Commons license on a 3D printed sculpture does not mean that you can print it however you want.

The past few days have seen an increase incomplaints by 3D printing designers about how companies that manufacture 3D printers use their designs.  It raises questions about how copyright works in the world of 3D printing, and what it means to release designs under a Creative Commons license. 

Copyright Still Exists in 3D Printing

One of the things that makes 3D printing so interesting is that, especially when compared to the world of music and movies, lots of 3D printed objects are not protected by copyright (or any type of intellectual property right) at all.  However, the fact that many 3D printed things are not protected by copyright does not mean that all 3D printed things are not protected by copyright.  

While the line between what is protected and what is not can be a bit complicated sometimes (here is a whitepaper to help you with the details), there is a fairly straightforward rule of thumb: purely artistic things are probably going to be protected by copyright, while purely functional things are probably not going to be protected by copyright.

Sculptures are Artistic

Obvious members of that “purely artistic” category are abstract sculptures.  Just because they are created in a virtual CAD environment or were designed with 3D printing in mind does not prevent them from being protected by copyright.  And that copyright comes with certain protections and rights.  

The most obvious of those rights is the right to decide who gets to copy or reproduce the sculpture.  If you want to copy a sculpture that is protected by copyright, you either need permission from the person who owns the copyright or a reason not to need permission like fair use.

Copying that sculpture without permission can get expensive.  Copyright law lets a courtassume damages up to $150,000 per work if the infringement is willful.  The person who owns the copyright does not even have to prove damages – she can just point to the number in the law and demand that much.

Creative Commons is Permission, but not Permission to Do Whatever You Want

If you own a copyright, you can condition your permission (your “license”) on pretty much whatever you want.  Creative Commons has created a collection of licenses that lets people condition permission to copy on a handful of easy-to-understand factors.  Copy all you want, but give me attribution.  Copy all you want, but give me attricution and make your copies available in the same way to everyone.  Copy all you want, as long as you give me credit and it is not for a commercial purpose 

As long as you comply with the license, you are copying with permission and not infringing on copyright.  But if you copy without complying with the license you are infringing on copyright.  That is just as true for things with Creative Commons licenses as it is with any other thing protected by copyright.  And remember, copyright infringement can get expensive.

Which Brings us to Trade Shows and 3D Printing Companies

One of the most impressive things to watch is a 3D printer print a really cool abstract sculpture. Besides being an interesting process, some abstract sculptures – especially ones that contain shapes you have not seen before or that are hard to make with traditional manufacturing techniques – help people understand the potential of 3D printing.  Because of that, it is not a surprise that 3D printer manufactures often use abstract sculptures to show off their machines at trade shows and other promotional events.

But remember, printing an abstract sculpture is creating a copy.  If that sculpture is protected by copyright, in order to create a copy those companies need a license.  For example, if the license is a Creative Commons attribution license, they need to give the designer credit (here’s an easy way to do that).  Without credit, those copies infringe on the designer’s copyright.

And if the license is a Creative Commons non-commercial license, it is a bad idea for these companies to exclusively rely on that license for permission to print it at a trade show or in advertising.  While what constitutes commercial and non-commercial use can sometimes get tricky in the context of Creative Commons, a trade show or an ad for a commercial product is a pretty straightforward commercial use.

None of this means that it is impossible for 3D printing companies to feature Creative Commons non-commercial-licensed designs at trade shows or in commercials.  It just means that those companies cannot solely rely on the offered Creative Commons licenses to do so.  Instead, they need to reach out to designers and negotiate a new license that allows them to use the designs commercially.

What Happens if Copying Continues?

What can a designer do if they see a design being used in a way that does not comply with the generally available license?  Ultimately that is up to them.  The best thing to do is probably to reach out to the company and try and negotiate a license.  But if that fails, there is always a copyright lawsuit.  $150,000 worth of damages (per work) tends to get the attention of even the biggest 3D printer manufacturer.

Image by Thingiverse user Dizingof.

A new wave of creators care about innovating. They care about building things. And they mostly see patents as getting in the way.

If you are a practicing patent attorney, it might be a good idea to call up that one copyright attorney you know and invite them out for some coffee.  Because it’s starting to look like patents are about to have a copyright-like moment where they get pulled from an esoteric corner of law and thrust into popular culture.

And this isn’t a post about software patents, or about the portable patent thicket that is a modern mobile phone.  No, this is a post about what happens when an entire chunk of society runs into an area of law and gets really, really annoyed with what they find.

Remember What Happened to Copyright

It might be hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when most people were largely unaware of copyright.  It wasn’t woven into their everyday lives, and fair use was as obscure a legal term as fee simple.  Copyright was something of a backwater, of interest only to small numbers of people in a handful of industries.

The internet changed that.  It wasn’t so much that people started creating – they had been doing that all along – but rather that they started creating publicly and distributing their creations.  It was also easier (and more public) to work with the creations of others.  Suddenly, copyright started to touch everyone.

And everyone wasn’t necessarily happy with what they saw once they started paying attention.  Things that people steeped in copyright may have taken for granted (wait, there is no central place to actually look up who owns a copyright?) struck people as annoying at best and insane at worst.  This sunlight shook up some of the fundamental assumptions surrounding copyright, unleashed a wave of suggestions on how to fix it, and generally forced most people in the world of copyright to at least give some thought to the theory underlying it.  And we’re still trying to figure out exactly what it all means.

3D Printing, Open Source Hardware, and Maker Culture

It isn’t hard to see a similar dynamic brewing in the world of patents.  People have been making things themselves since the beginning of time.  But new technical advances in digital manufacturing and easy-to-use components, combined with open source hardware and the larger maker culture, all coming together on the existing internet, amplifies the impact.

People are starting to make things, share things, and incorporate existing things into their new creations.  To patent attorneys, this is a potential licensing nightmare. But to the people who are creating, this is just a great development.

This recent post by Zach “Hoeken” Smith is a great example of this developing worldview.  As a co-founder of Makerbot, a zealous (in the best possible way) advocate for open source hardware, and the Program Director at the hardware startup incubator HAXLR8R, Zach is as good of an example of the next wave of innovators as you could ask for. 

His post makes clear that he does not see a particular value in patents, even though he sees a great deal of value in innovation.  His response is to try and use the patent system against itself by publishing a list of ideas that he hopes people will use but never patent.

Patent attorneys might differ on the wisdom or utility of this strategy, but in some ways that is the point.  Zach, and the world of people that I have unwittingly recruited him to represent for the purposes of this post, do not necessarily care about the technical details of patent law. 

They care about innovating.  They care about building things.  And they mostly see patents as getting in the way of that. 

If copyright is any guide, when a mass of people get together with that sort of worldview, things start to get interesting.  And the argument that “we’ve always done it one way” is not enough to carry the day.

But Every Time is Different

It is always dangerous to try and draw exact historical parallels.  It is unlikely that the patent world will change in exactly the same way that the copyright world did.  But it is likely that the patent world is due for a shakeup.

And in some ways, the patent world is even less prepared.  For people creating things in the world of copyright, copyright brought them into the regime.  They automatically received copyright protection on their creations.  And statutory damages theoretically offered a promise of a payoff to justify the cost of an infringement suit.

Patent does none of that.  Patents are not automatic.  In fact, they are expensive (in both time and money) to obtain, and even more expensive to enforce.  For almost all of these new creators, getting patents will never make sense.  They will never be on the beneficial side of the system.  That makes patents a one-way tool used to stop them from doing what they want to do – things that they see as perfectly reasonable.

After the shock subsides, the calls for reform follow.  People start demanding explanations of why patents work they way that they do.  When this happens, cozy assumptions about the way the world works that were developed by a relatively small universe of people rarely stand up to scrutiny.  There is a lot of attention surrounding patent reform today, but it may pale in comparison to what is on the horizon.

Image by flickr user SparkFun Electronics.

My closet doesn’t have an overhead light, which can make finding things a bit hard.  Fortunately, it is pretty easy to install an LED strip to light up the entire thing. 


It should probably go without saying that I’m not an electrician or electrical engineer, so make sure you are careful if you try this yourself.

To do this, you will need:

A strip of LED lights (I used these) ($13)

A power supply (I used this one) ($10)

A DC female barrel jack adapter (I used this one) ($3)

A rocker switch (any switch will probably do, but I used this one) ($1.50)

A box to house the stuff.  I used a plastic box used to mount a light switch or outlet that I got from the local hardware store.  The important characteristics were that it was plastic (so I could drill into it), it was deep enough to hold the switch, and that it had flanges on the outside to make it easy to mount.

A bit of hookup wire (like this) ($2.50)

Electrical tape

2 Nails

Optional: Double sided tape and extension cords

When you get the LED strand you will notice that one side already has an adapter that fits into the power supply.  I suppose you could cut open the adapter and just directly insert the switch, but since the other side of the strand is bare wires and the extra adapter was only $3, I decided to use the other side.

Step 1: Drill holes into the box.  I put one on  the face for the switch and one on the top for the power supply.  Once you have the holes, push the switch in.  If you have strong feelings about which way should be “on,” make sure that the switch is oriented to your power hole is at the top.



Step 2: Connect one of the LED wires to the power supply.  If you didn’t need the switch but you still wanted to use the female connector you got, you could just connect both of the wires.  But assuming you want the switch, just connect one (as far as I know, it doesn’t matter which one).


Step 3: Connect the other side to the switch.  You may notice that the switch actually has three terminals.  The third gold terminal is actually to power the LED in the switch itself.  I didn’t use it, so it won’t be connected.  For this connection, just run a bit of hookup wire from the other terminal of the female connector to one of the silver terminals on the switch.


Step 4: Connect the other side of the LED strand wires to the remaining silver terminal on the switch.


As you can see, the red and black wires that run out of the top of the picture are connected to the LED strand itself.


At this point you should be able to connect your power supply, turn on the switch, and get light.  Assuming that worked for you (if it didn’t check your connections) you can solder up the switch connections and put on some electrical tape to keep them from shorting.  This isn’t absolutely required, but both should help it work more consistently and will reduce the chance that you burn your house down.


It’s easy going from here.  If you need to, run an extension cord into your closet (I tacked the wire to the wall to make it a bit neater) and decide where you want to mount the switch.

Step 5: Mount the switch by nailing the box to the wall.  It’s your closet, so make it whatever height you like.


Running the power cord out of the top of the box should keep it from coming undone.  The wires to the LEDs are small, so I just ran them out of the top next to the wall.

Step 6: Run the LEDs.  The LED strip comes with adhesive backing, so just pull it off and press the LEDs up against the wall.  However, the adhesive backing kind of sucks so I reinforced it will a bit of double sided tape every yard or so.


It can be hard to get the strip to turn corners at the top of your door frame.  Just take your time and move in a long arc, and don’t be afraid to leave some of the strip unattached to the wall to make the turn easier.  Once you have run it up one side, over the top, and down the other side you may have some extra LED strip.  You can cut it wherever there is a white line with a little scissor graphic, about every two inches or so.  Once you’ve done that you are finished.


Content providers paying ISPs special fees to access customers is exactly what net neutrality is supposed to prevent.  It is time for the FCC to heed its own warning.

News broke today that ESPN is in negotiations with at least one major wireless carrier to pay to exempt ESPN content from data caps.  This type of structure, where content providers who pay get better access to customers, is exactly what net neutrality is designed to prevent. 

At its core, net neutrality is all about making sure that the company that connects you to the internet does not get to control what you do on the internet (if you ever forget that, just head on over to WhatIsNetNeutrality.org for a reminder).  Imposing data caps on consumers and then allowing wealthy content holders to buy their way around them is a recipe for stagnation online.

What kinds of problems does this create?  Fortunately, in its Open Internet Order, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provided us with a taste of what may happen (“edge providers” are anyone who creates content like ESPN, Facebook, local governments, and personal websites):

  • “a broadband provider may act to benefit edge providers that have paid it to exclude rivals” (Paragraph 23)
  • “broadband providers may have incentives to increase revenues by charging edge providers, who already pay for their own connections to the Internet, for access or prioritized access to end users.” (Paragraph 24)
  • “Broadband providers would be expected to set inefficiently high fees to edge providers because they receive the benefits of those fees but are unlikely to fully account of the detrimental impact on edge providers’ ability and incentive to innovate and invest, including the possibility that some edge providers might exit or decline to enter the market.” (Paragraph 25)
  • “Fees for access or prioritized access could trigger an ‘arms race’ within a given edge market segment.  If one edge provider pays for access or prioritized access to end users, subscribers may tend to favor that provider’s services, and competing edge providers may feel that they must respond by paying too.” (Paragraph 25)
  • “Fees for access or prioritization to end users could reduce the potential profits that an edge provider would expect to earn from developing new offerings, and thereby reducing edge providers’ incentives to invest and innovate.” (Paragraph 26)
  • “if broadband providers can profitably charge edge providers for prioritized access to end users, they will have an incentive to degrade or decline to increase the quality of the service they provide to non-prioritized traffic.” (Paragraph 29)

The deal being discussed could cause all of these harms and more.  Now is the time for the FCC to step up and preserve an open internet.

Image by flickr user espensorvik.

Friday may well go down as a turning point in the debate around 3D printed guns, and 3D printing policy in general.  Two important sides seemed to step away from confrontation and instead focus on what is important to them.  Defense Distributed included metal parts in their otherwise fully 3D printed handgun.  And Rep. Steve Israel used Defense Distributed’s announcement to raise concerns about undetectable firearms, not 3D printing.  Both should be praised for these decisions.

Bur first, some background

Conversations about firearms have been bubbling around the edges of 3D printing for some time now.  Things really started heating up when an organization called Defense Distributedannounced its intention to help design a fully 3D printed firearm.  This raised some policy concerns (some novel, some not) about home manufacture of firearms.

Perhaps the highest profile critic of Defense Distributed was Rep. Steve Israel.  Although his primary concern was with undetectable firearms, much of his framing seemed to single out one way to make undetectable firearms – 3D printing.  This 3D printing focus came to a head when Rep. Israel sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to other Members of Congress raising fears about 3D printed firearms.

What Defense Distributed did

On Friday, Forbes reported that Defense Distributed released photos of what it claims to be a fully 3D printed handgun.  But the handgun had an important feature – it included six ounces of steel, thus making it a detectable firearm.

This was a savvy decision on Defense Distributed’s part.  The organization has a substantial list of intriguing goals but making a gun that can be smuggled into an airport does not seem to be one of them.  By including metal in the design, Defense Distributed stepped away from what may have been a distracting side conversation. This should allow it to focus on the things it really cares about without unnecessarily reaching into other policy areas.

What Rep. Israel did

We were quite critical of Rep. Israel’s previous Dear Colleague letter.  As we wrote then, the letter seemed to muddle his concerns and be overly-focused on one way to make undetectable firearms, not on undetectable firearms themselves.  Friday’s announcement could have been an opportunity to return to that argument.

But instead, to his credit, Rep. Israel focused on the real concerns that Friday’s announcement raised for him.  In a new Dear Colleague letter, Rep. Israel points to Defense Distributed’s design as a high profile reminder that undetectable firearms are a real possibility.  Rep. Israel’s letter focuses on his real concern – undetectable firearms – without singling out one way to manufacture them.

None of this will be the last word

While these are both encouraging steps, they certainly do not represent the end of the line.  Including metal in a gun design does not mean that it cannot be modified to be undetectable.  And removing 3D printing references from a Dear Colleague letter does not mean that no Member of Congress will ever unnecessarily vilify 3D printing.  

But both sides appear to have shifted their focus back to what they really care about.  This type of evolution is positive for policy conversations surrounding 3D printing.  Hopefully they are signs of positive things to come.  And you can rest assured that we here at Public Knowledge are working to make sure that this momentum keeps moving in the right direction.

Co-Sponsor Legislation to Continue the Ban on Plastic Guns

From: The Honorable Steve Israel
Bill: H.R. 1474
Date: 5/3/2013


Dear Colleague:

As you might have seen today, Defense Distributed unveiled a technologic feat that many said was years from development: a gun made almost completely of plastic. Just as the true threat of plastic guns is becoming more and more apparent, the law that keeps these firearms off of our streets is set to lapse. Now that the technology has advanced to a point where these guns are real and will soon be able to reliably fire bullets, Congress must act. Below please find an article from Forbes outlining today’s news.

I urge you to co-sponsor legislation I introduced to give law enforcement the tools they need to protect American families from plastic firearms and gun components that can slip past security checkpoints. My legislation would extend and update the ban on guns and gun parts that cannot be detected by metal detectors or x-ray machines, entitled the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act.

The Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act would update current law and extend key provisions to include both lower receivers and magazines printed in plastic by individuals. The legislation specifically targets individuals who produce plastic gun components and magazines, while exempting legitimate manufacturers. Extending this ban is necessary to give law enforcement the tools they need to keep plastic guns that can slip through security lines off of our streets.

To sign on as a cosponsor, please contact ******* in my office at *-**** / *********.



Member of Congress