Yesterday the Copyright Office released all of the answers to the questions they had after the unlocking hearings.  Turns out that Stratasys, Public Knowledge, and I all agree!  We all told the Copyright Office that there is no meaningful way to make some sort of distinction between “commercial” and “non-commercial” users of 3D printers for the purpose of the exemption.  What’s going on here?

Both during the hearing and in its follow up question, the Copyright Office seemed interested in exploring granting some sort of partial exemption for unlocking 3D printers.  It is always dangerous to look too deeply into the tea leaves of questions to guess what people are thinking, but it seemed like the Office was considering an unlocking exemption for a category of small, personal printers or users while not granting the exemption for larger commercial printers or users.  The Office’s follow up question asked participants if this sort of distinction was viable.

All three of us answered no, essentially making the same types of points: Professionals use lower cost desktop printers for work and everyday people use expensive “industrial” printers for fun (via services such as my employer Shapeways).  Printers can switch back and forth between what they print (or mix batches at the same time) and users can similarly switch what they are doing. 

At some level, all of us are making the same gamble: instead of tacitly accepting some sort of compromise from the Copyright Office where some printers get unlocked and others don’t, we are pushing the Copyright Office to make a real choice: either all 3D printers get an exemption or none do.  No legal distinctions that don’t make sense, no half measures.  Obviously, PK and I are pushing for the exemption while Stratasys is pushing against it, but our strategic thinking is probably similar. We’ll see in the next few months which gamble (if any?) pays off.

The Makerbot Twist

There has been a Makerbot subplot running through this entire proceeding, and the Stratasys response added another chapter.  Stratasys owns Makerbot and a significant amount of the discussion during the Copyright Office hearing discussed Makerbot specifically.

One of the things that I took from the hearing was that Stratasys was seriously considering adding DRM to their Makerbot line that locked Makerbots to Stratasys-approved filament. However, a week later the new Makerbot CEO (who, not incidentally, is also the son of the Chairman of Stratasys proper so presumably has deep ties inside the company) told Adafruit that he had no plans to DRM Makerbot filament.

Obviously the timetable is a bit compressed, but Stratasys’ response to the Copyright Office could have provided them an opportunity to clarify their plans with regard to Makerbot and DRM on the record.  The fact that they didn’t take that opportunity doesn’t inherently mean that they are being duplicitous (there are a million legitimate internal logistical reasons that the statement didn’t make it into the filing).  But it certainly does seem fair to note it as a missed opportunity.  The impression that Stratasys gave the Copyright Office was that the option to add filament DRM to Makerbot printers was important to them. This could have been a good opportunity to correct that impression, and it was one they did not take.

image credit: flickr user Mark Dumont.

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