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.

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